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Rachael and Auden Slack

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Karen Bradley.)

I am grateful for the chance to raise this important, if tragic, issue. I remember it well because the murder of Rachael and Auden Slack took place shortly after the general election, and I mentioned it in my maiden speech nearly three and a half years ago. I am not sure that it is a great commendation for our system that it has taken three and a half years to get to the inquest, and to have the chance to try to learn some of the lessons from the tragic death of three people.

Rachael and Auden Slack were murdered on 2 June 2010 by Rachael’s ex-partner and the father of Auden. The gentleman concerned had been suffering from mental health issues for quite a long time, and there had been various reports about his behaviour to the police, local health services and mental health trust social services. Sadly, however, not enough action was taken, and on 2 June he stabbed his ex-partner and child and took his own life with the same knife. It was a truly awful incident, and probably one of the worst murder situations we can imagine, especially as Rachael was pregnant at the time. We lost three innocent lives because of what seemed to many people to be the failure of various parts of the system to provide the protection, prevention or indeed the health care needed, that could possibly have prevented it from happening.

The reason for the debate tonight is that the inquest finally reported last week. The verdicts for Rachael and Auden were that they were unlawfully killed, and that, in part, their deaths were more than minimally contributed to by a failure to impress upon Rachael that she was at high risk of serious injury or homicide from her ex-partner. A further verdict on Auden’s death was that the police had failed to discuss with Rachael what steps could have been taken to address the risks to him.

The case is one of far too many around the country in which domestic violence incidents are not taken as seriously as we might like, ending with tragic results. This tragedy resulted in the death of two people and an unborn baby. The purpose of the debate is to press the Government on what more we can do to change or improve the system to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.

It is worth recounting some of the facts. As I have said, the police, the mental health trust, the general practitioner and others had been involved in the case. The facts in the week before the tragic incident are as follows. On 26 May, Rachael took her ex-partner to a police station after he refused to get out of her car. He was assessed by the mental health team but released because they believed he was no threat. Questions have been asked about whether those who did that assessment were fully aware of his mental health history, which was known to the same trust.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tone and the manner in which he is conducting the debate. As he knows, Andrew Cairns’s family live in my constituency. They are grieving for Rachael, for Auden, for Rachael’s unborn child and, of course, for Andrew. Mr Cairns’s family have told me of the lengthy battle fought by them and by Rachael to get him the help he needed as his mental health deteriorated over many years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that we learn the lessons from this tragic case? Four lives could have been saved had we done so earlier.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s kind words. I agree entirely that there seems to have been a long failure to provide Andrew with the care he needed. We cannot be wise after the event. None of us can say that people must have known the incident would happen. However, perhaps they ought to have seen a pattern of escalation of his condition—perhaps it gave off more warning signs than were seen.

On 28 May, in that tragic week, two days after Andrew was arrested and assessed, he phoned Rachael more than 20 times. He went round to see her and forced her to take him and the child out. While they were out at a park, he threatened to kill her and made various threats saying that she did not realise how dangerous he could be. That was reported to the police. Sadly, he was released on police bail with conditions not to approach Rachael, but no further action was taken.

A neighbour reported further threats Andrew had made to take away Auden. There was some concern that the police did not take action following that report. At that point, the police concluded that Rachael was at high risk. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that they told Rachael how high their assessment of the risk was. That is what led to the coroner’s findings.

On the day of the tragic incident, Mr Cairns visited his GP, who reported that Mr Cairns was anxious and agitated. Mr Cairns remarked to the GP that, “The next few days will be the most important of your career.” By the time Mr Cairns left the GP, he had apparently calmed down and was rational, but, clearly, even on the day, he had made a cry for help that sadly was not heeded. I am sure that, if any of the police, the mental health team, the GP or anybody else had thought that the tragedy would happen later that day, they would have taken action to prevent it. The question we need to ask is: what more could have been done to assess the risk properly and see whether there was a realistic risk of such a tragic event? No hon. Member wants anything like this tragedy to happen again.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that it is important that our Derbyshire police, whom we love and trust, have a specialist domestic violence unit that can look into incidents and give professional advice to people who do not necessarily deal with domestic violence day-to-day?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention and I entirely agree. One of the issues is ensuring that the police have the specialist knowledge and training to be able to handle domestic violence cases. The right answer has to be more specialist police officers, but because there are so many reports of domestic abuse, which police all over the county have to handle urgently, I am not sure that it is possible always to send out a specialist domestic violence officer to each of those incidents. It is perhaps a question of ensuring better training in general for police officers and then making sure that cases that look to be serious receive specialist follow-up as soon as possible to ensure that signs of escalating behaviour or real risk have not been missed by a perhaps less trained person. In general, I agree with my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

The coroner last week suggested that he would make some recommendations to the Home Office, and I am not sure whether the Minister has received those yet. One of those suggestions was for some kind of electronic document that would summarise the important details in the investigation that would be available to all the police officers involved in the case. Outside agencies might also have some input, such as the mental health teams, social services, the local health teams or anyone else deemed relevant. It is key to ensure the full and complete sharing of information between the various teams involved. If everyone who had ever dealt with this case had known the full history of the complaints by Rachael and Mr Cairns’s mental health issues, it might have shown the pattern of escalating behaviour. He might have been viewed as a much higher risk than was initially thought by most of the people involved.

Another suggestion is that perhaps we could strengthen police bail conditions or introduce greater sanctions if they are breached. There is a question about what can be done by court bail and what can be done by the police, but it cannot inspire public confidence if someone is released on police bail with a condition that he cannot approach someone, but very little action appears to be taken if he approaches her soon after being given that bail condition.

A public campaign, supported by 38 Degrees—not an organisation Conservative Members are always fans of—suggests a full public inquiry into how the whole system deals with domestic violence issues. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is carrying out a review, but as various police forces around the country have received strong criticism from the IPCC on how they have handled domestic violence cases in recent years, perhaps we need to go a step further than an IPCC review. A full public inquiry could look at all the agencies involved rather than just focusing on the police, which is not where all the issues lie. Perhaps the Minister could tell me whether the Government are inclined to have a public inquiry on an issue as important as this. The statistics suggest that two or three women a week are killed in domestic violence incidents, and that is an awful situation for a country such as ours still to be in.

It is not for us to reinvestigate this case. Reports are still required from the police and various other agencies, but my purpose today is to raise with the Home Office both the tragedy of this case and the points at which greater action could have been taken to protect Rachael—perhaps to give her greater security, or regrettably to advise her to flee her home to ensure that she was not at immediate risk—or to address Mr Cairns’s health needs, perhaps including sectioning him or giving him more intensive treatment than he was able to get. Is it fair that Rachael was never recorded as Mr Cairns’s carer so she never really got any information or support for the help that she was trying to give her ex-partner for his mental health condition?

Having discussed this with Derbyshire police over the past three years, I am aware that they have reviewed their processes and have tried to make improvements. There are outstanding reports that may require further consideration, but they now have initiatives to work more closely with social services from the same base and to try to improve links with the mental health team. Perhaps the Minister can talk about initiatives he may have seen elsewhere that could be rolled out as best practice around the country. The closer the working relationships, the more immediate the contact and the sharing of information, all of which might make a positive outcome more likely. We all talk about greater partnership working and sharing, but people work in silos and if there are not robust processes and good personal working relationships, trying to bridge three trusts or public bodies with different demands on their time is not always very effective. The question is: how can we improve and create best practice?

It is tempting to think that Parliament could wave a magic wand, pass a new Bill or give new powers to stop this type of incident happening. I am not convinced that we have missed anything. The police have never said to me, “If only we had had this power we could have stopped it.” However, if the Minister has any suggestions about extra powers that the police need or could have used in this case that they were not aware of—I am not saying that that is the case—that would be helpful to the family. There is a feeling among the family, friends and the community that something went horribly wrong—that this was preventable and that somehow the system failed. If there is anything that can come out of an incident as tragic as this, it is that it never happens again.

I again stress my condolences to the family and friends of Rachael and Auden for their tragic loss. I wish that the inquest had reported several months or years earlier. It is a pity that we have had to wait three and a half years before being able to have a public assessment to start to learn the lessons in the public domain. I urge the Minister to do whatever he can to make the inquest system much faster. I struggle to see why we have to put people through three and a half years of waiting before they can get the closure they need. I hope the Minister can provide some assurance that the Government take this issue very seriously—I know they do—and that we can expect further progress to ensure that this kind of thing can never happen again.

It is the convention on these occasions to congratulate the hon. Member who secured the debate. I am not sure that “congratulate” is quite the right word in this case, but my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) has been absolutely right to raise this matter. I welcome his contribution and the contributions of other hon. Members.

I want to begin by offering my condolences to the family of Rachael Slack and her son Auden, and commend them for the courage and dignity they have shown at this difficult time. Domestic violence is an abhorrent crime, and one that the Government is committed to tackling with determination. This is a high priority for both me and the Home Secretary.

The circumstances of Rachael and Auden’s deaths are tragic, and were eloquently outlined by my hon. Friend. The sad loss of such individuals is doubly distressing, because it is now clear from the coroner’s findings that their deaths could have been prevented. Such a case deserves our attention and we must ensure that lessons are learned, but we must do more than that: we must ensure that those lessons are acted on. I have noted with concern the findings of the coroner in this case, Richard Hunter, which were released on 22 October. I understand that he will be writing to the Home Secretary in due course. I would like to thank him for his thoroughness and diligence in such a difficult case.

I was concerned to read that police failings “more than minimally” contributed to Rachael and Auden’s deaths. I have the utmost respect for the police and the vital work they do with professionalism and integrity day in, day out. However, it is alarming that in this case officers appear to have assessed Rachael as being in danger and yet failed to pass that message on to her—the one person who really needed to know. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is currently assessing all the evidence in this case following the inquest. It will then make a decision on the next steps. This case follows other reports from the IPCC that have flagged up police failings, such as the cases of Maria Stubbings, Clare Wood and Susan McGoldrick. I would like to reassure Parliament that I take such cases extremely seriously; such failings cannot be allowed to happen again.

Since Rachael and Auden’s deaths in 2010, the Government have supported a series of reforms to the handling of domestic violence by the police. All police forces have measures in place to ensure officers have the knowledge and skills to deal effectively with cases of domestic violence. Specific training on domestic violence and abuse is included in the national police training curriculum. This training was updated this year to take account of the Government’s introduction of a new definition of domestic abuse. The new definition helps to prevent the escalation of abuse, which can end in tragedy, by dispelling the belief that domestic abuse begins and ends with violence. It places coercive control at the centre of determining whether abuse is taking place.

Perhaps most significantly, since April 2011 the Government has placed homicide reviews on a statutory footing. Now every local report into a domestic homicide is reviewed and quality assured by a panel of independent and Home Office experts. A community safety partnership in Derbyshire is among those to have completed a domestic homicide review that has been quality assured by the independent panel. Each review has resulted in a tailored action plan that must be delivered by the area in question to make sure we learn from these individual tragedies. I am also happy to confirm that the Home Office will be issuing a document collating the lessons learned from these reviews into a national action plan.

My hon. Friend asked about specialist teams. Of course, that is a matter for each individual police force to decide, but it is important—indeed essential—that police who attend domestic violence cases have the right training. The Home Office is working closely with the College of Policing to ensure that this occurs. The Home Secretary has also announced a force-wide review by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary into how the police deal with domestic violence.

My hon. Friend also mentioned mental health, as did the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). The Home Secretary chairs an inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, on which I also sit, and I will raise this matter with the Department of Health to ensure we address any gaps in the system, including information sharing and risk assessment. Members are absolutely right to expect this to be joined up across Departments, and joined up locally as well.

Does the Minister also agree that when assessing domestic violence cases, it is important to bear in mind the risk to the children as well? It is not always just a case of the woman or man; we need to look at the risk faced by the children, but in this case I am not sure that that was done as thoroughly as it ought to have been.

We will see what the coroner writes to the Home Secretary, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that in any situation of suspected domestic abuse, it is right that children’s services are engaged, if there are children present. Sometimes, if there is domestic abuse of a partner, there can also be domestic abuse against children. It does not always follow, but sometimes it does, and we ought to ensure that it is covered in any assessment.

This Government has ring-fenced nearly £40 million for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services. Facilities funded with this money include 144 independent domestic violence advisers, who help victims of domestic violence get their voices heard, and 54 multi-agency risk assessment co-ordinators, who protect the interests of those such as Rachael who are most at risk. Up to 60% of abuse victims report no further violence following intervention by independent advisers.

This national funding operates in tandem with local initiatives, and I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in congratulating Derbyshire county council on the support it is now offering, which includes the Derbyshire domestic abuse helpline, to those at risk of domestic abuse. I encourage all local authorities to remember the importance of such initiatives when making difficult decisions about spending and delivering more for less.

But we can, should and will do more nationally to reach out to those caught in cycles of abuse. That is why the Home Office has piloted two new initiatives designed to empower victims and stop domestic abuse in its tracks. This comes to the point my hon. Friend made about what more can be done. The first of these pilots is named after another young victim, Clare Wood, who was tragically murdered by her former partner in Salford in 2009. Known as Clare’s law, the domestic violence disclosure scheme is a system where anyone can seek disclosure of a partner’s violent past. Those with the legal right to know are provided with information that could well save lives, empowering them to make an informed choice about their futures.

Our second pilot scheme creates a new process to protect victims in the immediate aftermath of domestic abuse. Domestic violence protection orders have the power to prevent a perpetrator of domestic abuse from having contact with the victim for up to 28 days. This offers both the victim and the perpetrator the chance to reflect on the incident. In the case of the victim, it provides an opportunity to determine the best course of action to end a cycle of abuse, as well as providing immediate relief and protection. We are currently carrying out an evaluation of both the pilots, and we expect to be able to announce plans for their future soon.

There is no room for complacency, however. It is because of cases such as Rachael’s that the Home Secretary has commissioned HMIC to review police handling of domestic violence and abuse. The inspection is under way and I look forward to receiving the findings, probably in April. We will review the recommendations with care, and ensure that they are acted on as we strive for further improvements in this area.

The crime figures for England and Wales show that the levels of domestic abuse experienced in the past year are lower than they were in 2004-05, and that the conviction rates for violence against women and girls are higher than before, but hon. Members have rightly expressed concern at the reduction in domestic violence referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service by the police at the end of last year. The Home Office has held a round-table with the Director of Public Prosecutions and national policing leads to understand the cause of this downward trend, and the Attorney-General has issued a six-point plan to address this. We will continue to work on delivering against that plan in the coming weeks.

I appreciate that, as a Home Office Minister, the hon. Gentleman is focused on the important lessons of this tragic case for the police and the Home Office, but I really do not want us to lose sight of the fact that Mr Cairns had been extremely unwell over a number of years, and that concerns had been raised repeatedly by Rachael and by Mr Cairns’s wider family. I would be grateful if the Minister could pass on the concerns about the care that Mr Cairns received, and about the failure to act on the warning signs, to his colleagues in the Home Office, so that those issues can also be addressed.

That is a valid point. As I mentioned a moment ago, we need a joined-up approach not only in Government but at local level. I have undertaken to ensure that the Department of Health is made aware of the particular aspects of the scheme, so that it can work with us to plug any gaps that are identified.

The point was also made about delays relating to the coroner. I agree that that process took a long time, and ideally there would not be such a long wait. We want to see justice being completed quickly, and the delays were obviously painful for those who wanted closure. I would be happy to raise that matter with the relevant Justice Minister to see what can be done, and I will pass those comments on.

We have also founded the College of Policing, and announced its role in providing professional standards for policing and helping police officers and staff to meet those standards throughout their careers. It will be the college’s mission to ensure that officers and staff understand and comply with the highest ethical standards. We hope that this will drive up standards in the police generally.

Domestic violence is a crime, and the worst possible violation of trust in human relationships. Deaths such as those of Rachael and Auden rightly cause shock and outrage, but we must also ensure that action is taken to prevent a similar thing from happening again and to secure justice for those who have lost their lives. I will be carefully reviewing the actions that we have taken over the past three years against the coroner’s findings in this case, to ensure that we do all we can to prevent appalling tragedies such as these from happening again because of the same failings.

Through our violence against women and girls action plan, the coalition Government has made significant strides towards a better reality for victims of domestic abuse, but we know that there is still much to do. Tomorrow, I shall raise my concerns on domestic abuse at a team meeting of all chief constables, and in the coming weeks I will be meeting representatives of women’s groups. I look forward to discussing our plans with them and listening to what they have to say about this matter. It is vital that we respond to cases such as Rachael’s to ensure that those who are vulnerable to the worst crimes are protected. I look forward to updating Parliament on our continued progress in tackling domestic violence in coming months.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.