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Domestic Violence (Law Reform)

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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2.18 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to domestic violence.
I think I owe you and the House an explanation, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I booked my slot approximately three months ago. It is one thing to hear a satisfactory policy announcement from the Government after one has spoken in favour of a change in the law; but to hear a satisfactory policy announcement from the Home Secretary before one has even opened one's mouth is an example of pre-emptive gratification which I hope will be emulated many times in the succeeding weeks, months and years of this Parliament.

I say at the outset, consistent with the non-partisan spirit of the exchanges on the statement, that I was enormously encouraged by what we heard from the Home Secretary. It was a truly ground-breaking statement of intended social reform upon which I warmly congratulate him. We also heard a typically gracious, probing and constructive contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and, likewise, from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). How right it is that those exchanges should have taken place in the way that they did.

In the period since I was elected in May 1997, interest in this House in the subject of domestic violence has been reflected in no fewer than 365 written questions, 74 oral questions and at least eight Adjournments debates initiated by Members from all parties. As we go forward by debating the consultation document, there is a real prospect that a genuine change in the law and in attitudes can take place that will be of enduring benefit to millions of people—predominantly, though admittedly not exclusively, women.

The Home Secretary explained the factual background to his decision to make the statement and to issue the consultation document. Perhaps I may express the point in a slightly different way. Last year, according to the British crime survey, about 635,000 incidents of domestic violence took place. An assault on a woman takes place approximately once every 26 seconds, from which it logically follows, I am sorry to have to say, that in the period for which I am on my feet with the privilege of addressing the House on this momentous issue, some 20 attacks on women will take place. Two women a week die as a result of domestic violence. We learn from the World Health Organisation that, as a cause of death and disability, domestic violence now plays a bigger role than cancer, road accidents and war. That is the seriousness of the situation. Of course, enormous costs are involved—not only the human cost in terms of the terrible toll of individual suffering and personal misery, but other costs, too. There are costs to the criminal justice system and to the national health service and social services, as well as a significant cost to the economy in consequence of the fact that many thousands of women are too sick or traumatised to work.

I am glad that the Home Secretary said that the Government intend to expand the supply of refuge places. He was absolutely right to do so, because there is significant pressure on places. In the Thames valley region, of which my constituency forms a part, refuges in Aylesbury, Milton Keynes and High Wycombe are full to bursting. They often have to turn people away and encourage them to find a place elsewhere because they cannot be accommodated. That is a terrible indictment of a civilised society, and the Home Secretary is right to seek to change the situation for the better.

I should like, by way of a legislative proposal of my own, to set out an offering that I hope that Ministers and other Members of Parliament will be prepared to consider. First, I commend to the Home Secretary the idea of a national domestic violence register that includes people who have served custodial sentences and possibly those who have been subject to restraining orders or court injunctions. That could be in the interests of suffering women, of the police going about their work, of the statutory and voluntary agencies engaged in co-operative work to tackle domestic violence, and of employers undertaking job checks on people who seek employment. In that sense, I suggest that there is an imperfect but relevant analogy between the proposal for a national domestic violence register and the sex offenders register.

Secondly, I impress upon the Home Secretary the importance of pressurising the Crown Prosecution Service, through much stronger guidance, ordinarily to pursue prosecutions even when the victim does not wish to do so. If there is neighbour testimony, photographic evidence or clear proof of injury, there must be a public interest argument for going ahead with prosecutions. Half of all cases are dropped before they get to court, in four fifths of cases because women are too fearful to proceed. Let us try to imitate what happens in Minnesota in the United States, where the presumption on which public policy proceeds is that prosecution, even without the victim's support or involvement, is the norm, not the exception.

Thirdly, I suggest that the Government are right to seek to amend the Children Act 1989 to underpin the responsibility of the court to satisfy itself that the child and his or her mother will be safe in cases of contact with the offending parent. I am glad that the Home Secretary mentioned that in his statement. If he has trouble with the business managers finding a legislative slot, I am not a proud man, and I would be very happy to use my ten-minute Bill as the vehicle by which he can achieve this welcome change in the law, which commands all-party support.

Fourthly, there is a case, as was emphasised by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and others, for an expansion of specialist children's services. There should be people in refuges specifically to attend to the needs of children. Therapy sessions should be available, and doctors and teachers need to be trained to identify children who are suffering or at risk, so that effective action can be taken as early as possible to help those young people.

Fifthly, I strongly believe that there is a powerful argument for trying to emulate what is done by Sunderland city council's housing authority, which has a tenancy agreement that allows for the removal of a domestic violence offender and his placement in a refuge or shelter himself in order that he can get therapy and the chance of rehabilitation. That is, of course, a debatable point. Many women will want to flee to get away from the harrowing and vicious environment in which they have suffered, but the presumption should not be that it is always the woman who has to move out.

Finally, the Government are right to consider waiving the rule that says that people whose nationality status is uncertain and who are awaiting determination of their immigration cases should have no access to public funds. They need income support and housing benefit, and a means by which to live and to get legal guidance. I welcome the Government's intention to change the law in that respect.

Much remains to be done. Too many people in this country and elsewhere have suffered too much over too long a period. It is extremely welcome that the Government intend to act, and the Opposition are right to take a sympathetic and constructive approach. We support the principles and will back much of the detail. My Bill is available for the purposes of the Government if they would like to take advantage of my offer. I appeal to the House again to show itself at its best by supporting this measure as a demonstration of our commitment to tackle one of the most abominable evils in this society at the present time.

Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Bercow, Michael Fabricant, Sandra Gidley, Jane Griffiths. Mr. Robert Key, Mr. George Osborne, Linda Perham, Mr. Anthony Steen, Ms Dari Taylor, and Mr. Robert Walter.

Domestic Violence (Law Reform)

Mr. John Bercow accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law relating to domestic violence: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 July, and to be printed [Bill 126].