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On 11 May I spoke in a parliamentary debate about government support for domestic violence refuges.

Specialist support services for women, such as refuges, are a lifeline for women and girls escaping domestic violence. But women’s domestic violence services are in crisis. Crude housing benefit cuts hidden away in the Autumn Statement are set to force the closure of tens of thousands of supported homes for vulnerable and older people.

This comes after women’s services have seen their funding shrink rapidly since 2010 - a third of local authority funding to domestic and sexual violence services was already cut by 2012.

Other speakers in the debate asked ministers to exempt women’s refuges and other specialist accommodation from these housing benefit cuts, and put forward a proper plan to fund these essential services.

Here’s the full text of my speech, which focused specifically on the need for better support for women involved in prostitution. At the end you can watch me give the speech, which inevitably differs a little for the written version.


Mr Chair, thank you for inviting me to speak. Thank you also to the Honourable member for Burnley for securing the debate, affecting the safety of thousands and thousands of women and children daily.

In my own constituency of Bristol West, Next Link – who provide help, advice and refuge to women and children across the city, and also to men who need protection from domestic abuse – have had to respond to a 15% cut in funding from Bristol City Council and are effectively being expected to do more for less.

Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support – who offer support through a telephone helpline and counselling to victims of rape and sexual assault in Bristol and beyond – have had slight cuts from the Ministry of Justice and from the local council, but demand is far outstripping supply and they have a huge waiting list for counselling.

Bristol City Council has done its best to protect funding for support for victims and survivors of violence, but Safer Bristol has had to make some cuts (politely described in the budget as ‘reshaping’ and ‘efficiencies’) and cuts to policy development for licensing and regulatory functions such as taxis, pubs and clubs.

Mr Chair, my previous experience before becoming a member of parliament was partly in music but I also spent most of the previous 26 years working to end violence against women and girls and other gender violence. I worked on virtually every aspect of this: support for survivors; policy; help for children; prevention work with young people; work with perpetrators; as well as research and training locally, nationally and internationally. I worked most recently at Respect, the national organisation for work with perpetrators, young people and male victims of domestic abuse.

I want to focus on one very specific group of women who are often ignored in debates and policy-making for refuge funding and other support for victims of violence: those who work in the so-called ‘sex industry’.

Mr Chair, this is not ‘a job like any other’. Yes, women working in it often (though not always) describe what they do as a job and I respect that. However, there is no other job in which the risk of physical and sexual violence is so high, and in which the very nature of the work provides the setting and opportunity for physical and sexual assault and for impunity for the perpetrator. This is a job in which the men who pay for sex can misuse the financial and other power they have to force women to do sexual things they don’t want to do and to hurt or threaten them to get what they want.

There are no health and safety regulations in prostitution.

80,000 people in this country are involved in prostitution at any time, mostly women and girls, but also some men and boys. Around half of all women in off-street prostitution are migrant women, often trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

There has been a marked increase in demand from men who want to pay for sex in this country. During the 1990s demand almost doubled from 1 in 20 men paying for sex to 1 in 10. Since the rise of the internet I would suspect that this has increased still more.

  • Half of all women in prostitution have been raped or sexually assaulted.
  • They are 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women.
  • Almost all women involved in street prostitution have problematic drug use.
  • Many have mental health problems or face homelessness or separation from their children.
  • Many will be criminalised by a system which usually penalises the women selling sex, not the men buying it.
  • Women are often coerced into prostitution by someone they see as their boyfriend or partner but who becomes their pimp. They will often face violence from this partner.

Notable murders in Ipswich in 2006 highlighted the severe risks women in prostitution face daily. It was noticeable, however, that we have made progress as a country from the 1970s, when Peter Sutcliffe was murdering women with barely any media or police attention, until he moved from murdering prostituted women to other women. At least in 2006 there was public and huge police concern for the safety of women and the perpetrator was caught much more quickly.

Trying to negotiate safe sexual practice in a room or car on their own with someone who wants to do something sexual to them which they don’t want, and who believes that they are entitled to enforce it because they are paying – that’s not realistic.

Violence against women in prostitution and the policing, health and other costs associated with it cost the public money and tackling the demand side of it saves us money. New Philanthropy Capital has estimated that the cost of this violence and trafficking women for prostitution cost the country £2.11 billion per annum. And following the Ipswich murders, the Suffolk police’s new focus on ending the demand side of street prostitution revealed that for every £1 spent on this intervention, there was a saving of £2 for the public purse.

Mr Chair, if you work in a bakery, your boss can tell you to bake bread and that’s part of your job. If you work as a bus driver, your boss can tell you to drive the bus. If you don’t perform your duties, your boss can do many things and ultimately sack you. That’s very different for women in prostitution. If their boss or client tells them to do something sexual that they don’t want to do, when they then insist on it or use force or threats to get compliance, that’s rape or sexual assault. There is no other job in which this is such a daily and present possibility. There is no other job in which, when this happens, the women’s work is held to be the factor – her so-called ‘lifestyle choice’ – rather than the perpetrators of rape, physical and sexual violence: the men paying for sex or the pimps renting out women’s bodies. She may then face further violence from her partner or pimp if she tries to get away or get help, or for other reasons. The threat of violence and sexual assault is a daily reality for these women.

This is not a job like any other. It is little wonder that research finds that the majority of women involved in this work want to leave. But most of them will struggle and the violence is part of the reason.

Women in this work need our help and support.

Here we have 80,000 people, mostly women and girls, all vulnerable to rape, sexual assault and physical violence, often in and out of the criminal justice system or homelessness, often dependent on drugs and often involved with an abusive partner. Many of them will have grown up without parental protection and ended up in local authority care.

We need to be providing these women with help and protection, not criminalising them. And we need to be tackling the demand side.

There have never been many specialist services for these women. Why? They have complex needs as I have described. They may be unwilling to engage with traditional services. They may be ineligible for support from refuges because of funding restrictions or for other reasons. They may be seen as difficult or hard to help. Hard-pressed public and voluntary sector organisations may not be able to prioritise them. Attitudes towards their involvement in prostitution may lead some to dismiss their vulnerable situation as a lifestyle choice. Decades ago, there were similar public attitudes about domestic abuse – that women were choosing to remain with an abuser. We have thankfully shifted that responsibility much more towards the perpetrator (although there is still a great deal to be done, particularly in the family court system). But we have not shifted it for women in prostitution. We need to start seeing what is happening to them as violence and abuse for which they are not responsible. Just as we try to support women who feel that they have to remain with or return to an abusive partner (but at the same time we condemn the violence and abuse), so too should we provide this support for women in prostitution, often at risk from both partner and clients.

In London, Eaves – one of the few organisations providing specialist support and refuge for women in prostitution – has had to close.

In my own constituency the organisation One25 does brilliant work supporting, advising and helping women in prostitution. They have partnerships with St Mungos to help with homelessness. They are pleased that Next Link, who I mentioned earlier, are now setting up a service for women with complex needs which should include these women. However, One25 have said that they expect this service to be hugely over-subscribed.

This is difficult work with no quick fixes. Women in prostitution usually arrive there via other bad situations and usually end up in worse situations as a result of the prostitution. This means careful, thoughtful and patient work.

If we don’t do it, there is a cost to pay – an economic cost as I highlighted earlier and a human cost to the women involved.

But also this is a measure of a civilised country that believes in gender equality as a principle. What does it say about us that we allow a group of our citizens to go unprotected from rape, sexual assault, physical violence and the ever-present threat of murder, just because it is too difficult?

We should remove those laws which criminalise these women and leave men unaffected. We also need to tackle the demand side.

This can be done. We’ve made huge progress in protection for survivors of domestic violence. During the last Labour government we started the first ever national strategy on violence against women and girls, as well as reforming the law on sexual consent, homicide and on the impact of children witnessing abuse. We need to enforce all these laws for women in prostitution and do everything we can to protect them from violence.

This must include everything we can do to end demand. But without the support this is not enough. One25 is always trying to ensure a wide range of funding sources so they aren’t dependent on one major source and they do have funding from Bristol City Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner. But charitable grants and trusts who are also vital for supporting this work require organisations to be able to demonstrate secure core funding. That’s getting harder and harder.

Mr Chair, finally, the most important thing for these women is that we recognise the violence being done to them, the complexity and fragility of their lives and the need for us to protect and support them and ultimately prevent the harm from happening.

Thank you.


My speech in Parliament on funding for refuges

On 11 May I spoke in a parliamentary debate about government support for domestic violence refuges. Specialist support services for women, such as refuges, are a lifeline for women and...


Many congratulations to Bristol’s new mayor Marvin Rees and all the newly elected councillors. I’m particularly thrilled we now have six new Labour councillors in my Bristol West constituency.

This means that we now have a Labour majority council and a Labour Mayor. It’s a tough time for local councils with unprecedented deep cuts to funding from central government. Any council and any mayor would have to make very difficult choices but I know that Labour colleagues will be doing everything they can to make these decisions in the best interests of all Bristolians. I am glad that there is a commitment to building new homes, as this is one of the biggest problems for constituents contacting me.

I'm very proud of the teams of volunteers working in each ward in Bristol West. They work hard all year round whether or not there is an election. They supported me last year and they’ve done the same this year and helped elect a Labour mayor and nine Labour councillors. They do this by listening and talking with people and explaining how Labour would do things differently in Bristol.

There’s much to do. I’ll work closely with Marvin and all our councillors to represent everyone in Bristol West, listen to their concerns, help them with their problems, and focus on our Labour priorities for tackling the main challenges our great city faces.

I'm looking forward to getting together with all the Bristol West councillors very soon.


Here’s a list of all our Labour councillors in Bristol West:

Tom Brook            Bishopston & Ashley Down   

Mike Davies          Ashley

Kye Dudd              Central

Marg Hickman       Lawrence Hill

Hibaq Jama           Lawrence Hill

Carole Johnson      Ashley

Ruth Pickersgill      Easton

Afzal Shah             Easton

Paul Smith            Central     

I’ll post the contact details for all councillors, of all parties, on my website soon. 

A Labour mayor and council for Bristol

Many congratulations to Bristol’s new mayor Marvin Rees and all the newly elected councillors. I’m particularly thrilled we now have six new Labour councillors in my Bristol West constituency. This...

Thangam in Immigration Bill debate

In my first major speech at Westminster since I returned from illness, last night I supported amendments to the Immigration Bill that would result in better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

I spoke specifically in favour of Lords Amendment 87 (‘the Dubs amendment’) to bring 3000 unaccompanied child refugees to this country from the EU. I also praised the many hundreds of Bristol West constituents who have written to me urging me to help refugees, and who have donated time, money and practical help to refugees, both in camps and in Bristol – a City of Sanctuary.  

As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, I also announced there would be a public enquiry later this year into the way the country responds to refugees and asylum seekers.

Unfortunately, and to the dismay of many, the government last night voted down the Dods amendment.

The Immigration Bill now returns to the Lords, where Lord Dubs, who himself came to the UK as a child refugee from the Czech Republic on the kindertransport, will make another attempt to force the government to take action.

You can read my full, original speech below. Do bear in mind that I had to omit some parts in the chamber. You can also watch the broadcast version that appears at the bottom of this page, or use this link to the Parliament TV channel

My speech in the Immigration Bill debate on Monday 25 April 2016

Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for calling me to speak today. I rise to speak in support of amendments laid before the House in support of better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. I speak specifically in favour of the Alf Dubs amendment to bring just 3000 unaccompanied child refugees to this country from the EU and also about refugees and immigration more widely, to try to help shed more light on a complex and often heated debate. I do so on behalf of many hundreds of people in Bristol West who have written to me urging me to help refugees. Many of them have also donated time, money and practical help, both in camps and in Bristol – a City of Sanctuary.

Madam Deputy Speaker, on Saturday I was fortunate to be at the Shakespeare Live event from Stratford and broadcast on the BBC. I understand there has been uproar in some quarters about the speech made by Sir Ian MacKellen, to my mind by far the stand-out high spot of the night. Nothing else came close in the potency of the language, the power and feeling of the delivery and the relevance today of a message written 400 or so years ago. This is given as a speech by Sir Thomas More, Sherriff of London during Henry VIII’s reign, addressing xenophobic rioters who tore through the city protesting against foreigners. He calls on them to “imagine that you see the wretched strangers, their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage, plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation”. A vivid description of the current situation for so many children and young people fleeing war today. He asks them to consider what they would do if they were refugees, what country would give them harbour, whether they would go “to France or Flanders, to any German province, to Spain or Portugal”, and to consider how they would feel if they were met “by a nation of such barbarous temper”. I ask every one of us here, if the worst happened and our children were alone and fleeing war and persecution, wouldn’t we hope that they would receive safe harbour in France or Flanders, Germany, Spain or Portugal?

The amendment we can pass tonight will help other children separated from their parents and fleeing war and persecution. We must help them before it is too late – children are going missing from refugee camps across Europe. I dread to think what conditions they are living in.

Madam Deputy Speaker, we would be failing in our duties as elected representatives if we did not show leadership to meet our commitments, legal obligations and moral imperatives, to refugees and asylum seekers.

Many people are concerned about immigration. Some believe that it is out of control, that they are suffering consequences of this and not having their concerns heard. They may not differentiate between refugees and other migrants. In my own constituency of Bristol West, I have a volume of emails from people urging me on to do more for refugees. But there are also worries.  Everyone here needs to be concerned about protecting refugees, particularly children and about how we respond to them here. We must shed light on both.

My own father was in many ways typical of most migrants. He came here in 1959 from India, first to study and work. He wanted to be part of the country which had given him that opportunity; he brought skills and paid taxes; he loved this country and he respected its rules and values. Most migrants everywhere in the world do exactly that. Refugees come here for safety from war and persecution. And this includes children.

The so-called ‘pull’ factor attributed to assistance to any migrants and to refugees in particular is misleading. First, because it associates them with taking rather than contributing. Second, it implies numbers vastly above the reality. Some newspaper headlines use  terms such as ‘floods’ or ‘hordes’ of migrants in general and refugees in particular. Let’s have a few facts.

The World Bank’s 2016 Migration and Remittances Factbook analyses migration in 2015.  Firstly it estimates that global migration in 2015 was 214 million people and, yes, that was an all-time high. However, it finds that South-South migration is larger than South-North migration.

The Factbook documents the impacts of migration on host and source nations. For host countries, these include migrants filling labour shortages – from the dirty, dangerous or difficult jobs native workers don’t want to do or skilled jobs for which we don’t have enough people suitably qualified.

Sonia Plaza, co-author of the Factbook says: “…. migration, both of highly skilled and low skilled workers, generates numerous benefits for receiving and sending countries. The diaspora of developing countries and return migration can be a source of capital, trade, investment, knowledge, and technology transfers.”

Her co-author Dilip Ratha adds: “At more than three times the size of development aid, international migrants’ remittances provide a lifeline for millions of households in developing countries. In addition, migrants hold more than $500 billion in annual savings. Together, remittances and migrant savings offer a substantial source of financing for development projects that can improve lives and livelihoods in developing countries.”

Migration helps our economies to grow, as migrants add their skills and knowledge, spend money locally and pay taxes. They are less likely than people born in this country to claim any state welfare. Many migrants, including refugees, set up their own businesses or help to run others, creating jobs for local people. Of the £417 billion they send back home, £306 billion of it goes to developing countries. This helps developing countries’ economies. This in turn benefits us as they trade with us, buy our goods, visit us as tourists or students and further help boost our economy.

In a survey of 15 European countries, the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that for every 1 per cent increase in a country’s population caused by immigration, its GDP grew between 1.25 and 1.5 per cent. The World Bank estimates that, if immigrants increased the workforces of wealthy countries by 3 per cent, it would boost world GDP by £246 billion by 2025. Removing all barriers to migration would have a massive effect. Some studies suggest it would increase world GDP by between 50 and 150 per cent.

Does migration affect local people’s wages and jobs? It would seem not. Different parts of non-EU Switzerland allowed free access to EU workers at different times, enabling Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis, to isolate the effects. He found that while the workforce grew by 4 per cent, there was no change in wages and employment for natives overall, though some moved to new jobs as a result.

The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility Fiscal Sustainability Report 2015 page 147 estimates that as a consequence of the effects described above, projected levels of immigration will actually help us to reduce the government’s debt as a proportion of GDP steadily and by one third by the middle of this century. They also estimate that if there were zero migration, we would actually increase our debt.

At the end of last year there were about 3,600 people in the UK currently who have been waiting longer than 6 months for a decision about their refugee status. That’s not a horde, it’s a potential benefit to this country. These are people who have skills they want to use, who have demonstrated their determination, resilience and courage in ways we can only imagine in their journeys here.

But it’s no wonder that so many people worry about the impact of migration when they are dealing with the impact including dispersal schemes which place pressure on areas where people are already struggling. The pressure on housing, health care and education services is not mitigated in people’s minds in the short term by the medium and longer-term contributions made by refugees (and other migrants). It’s not fair to expect people who’ve spent years on their local council housing register, or struggling with exorbitant private sector rents, to feel nothing about the impact of welcoming what they perceive to be hundreds of people from abroad. They may feel compassion for refugees but they also want to know where the all the housing will come from. They may not know the true numbers, or the other long term benefits. They may fear change. These are reasonable anxieties.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I believe the time is ripe for a transparent, informed, public debate about how we treat refugees and asylum seekers. This should include consideration of how we prepare local communities for new arrivals and how we plan for rapid expansion of necessary public services to meet increased demand, and of how we share out the impact of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers differently.  It will be difficult. There will be strong feelings and major challenges. No honourable member can ignore the chronic housing crisis, just as they cannot ignore the feelings of their own constituents and others.

But we cannot let the difficult be the enemy of the right. Protecting refugees is right. It is a human right we would expect if we were fleeing conflict or persecution. It is a human rights obligation we should be proud to honour and in the best ways we possibly can. It says something wonderful about our place in the world when we do that.

That’s why I am pleased to announce, as chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, that we will be holding a public enquiry into the way this country responds to refugees and asylum seekers. We will be putting out a call for written evidence before the summer recess and will be taking oral evidence in the autumn. I urge honourable members to discuss this topic with constituents and with members of their political parties during their conferences this September.

I believe that there also needs to be a wider, well-informed, enlightened and respectful debate about how we manage migration in general, in our parties and in the public sphere. I hope to be a leading voice in that debate and will be active in my own party, and wherever else I can, to help really listen to and respect people’s concerns. I want to help develop well-informed policy and practice to respond to migration worldwide and locally, with our partners in the EU and with developing and other countries.

To return to Shakespeare’s words and the decisions honourable members will make tonight. You can do your part for 3000 unaccompanied children. You can help protect children and young people the same age as our own children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. Children who’ve struggled across the continent unprotected, perhaps abused along the way, hungry, in need of our protection. Our leadership, in our own constituencies, can help make sure that they are not met with the ‘barbarous temper’ Shakespeare describes and which I fear many are meeting along the way, from people traffickers and others seeking to exploit them, but with warmth and care and protection.  They will need more – we must plan for their arrival. But I hope and believe that we have it in us to manage that. 3000 children – that’s fewer than five per constituency. Surely we can manage to support our local authorities to find foster carers, psychological support and education for five children in each of our constituencies?

Madam Deputy Speaker, I urge honourable members tonight, as they go through the lobbies, to think of this.  Today you will be helping a child you have not met but who in 20 years’ time may be the doctor who saves your own child’s life. The midwife who helps deliver your grandchild. The teacher who fires up that grandchild’s ambition. The scientist who helps find a cure for asthma or diabetes or cancer. The engineer who finds better ways to make vehicles run on clean energy sources. The mechanic who keeps the train going, or the care assistant who will help look after you when you are old.

All of these people are children today. Some of them are your own children or your children’s friends and classmates. And some of them are waiting in a refugee camp or in the back of a lorry or living in a ditch or worse, waiting for you to help them, with your vote tonight.

Every one of us here when we are first elected hopes that we will make a difference. That our presence here will mean something. That we will be part of a force for good.

Tonight we get to do all of this, by voting for the Alf Dubs amendment.


References – all links come from the following sources

New Scientist - The truth about migration: How it will reshape our world 6 April 2016

Office for Budget Responsibility Fiscal Sustainability Report July 2013 

World Bank – Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016  

Why we should welcome 3000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe

In my first major speech at Westminster since I returned from illness, last night I supported amendments to the Immigration Bill that would result in better treatment of refugees and...

Thangam Debbonaire is the MP for Bristol West constituency. 

If you would like to contact Thangam to arrange a meeting or discuss a problem, please email . 

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