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Family Annihilation

Volume 570: debated on Wednesday 6 November 2013

It is a pleasure to introduce this rather grim subject under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, given your committed support for family life.

Ten-year-old Ben Philpotts will always be remembered by his teachers at Trevisker community primary school in Cornwall with his hand eagerly in the air and with a beaming smile. Ben was a positive spirit, very popular and a much-loved member of his school community in St Eval, near Wadebridge. He was a boy who showed enthusiasm for everything that he undertook. He was a keen member of his local football team and was a natural sportsman.

Ben’s uncle, my constituent, Don Philpotts came to my constituency surgery a few months ago to tell me his tragic story. Ben’s short life ended on 18 January 2010 when his father, Harry, bludgeoned him to death with a sledgehammer, causing severe head injuries from which he quickly died. Harry had also murdered Ben’s mother, Patricia, and later set fire to the family home, resulting in widespread burns to himself, from which he died a few days later.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on a tragic event in Cornwall that horrified the local community. Does he agree that we must do everything that we can to protect vulnerable people from such incidents?

I most certainly do. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on this case. Part of the family lives in my constituency, but the events took place in his constituency, so this is a classic example of working together.

For some time before the events, Ben’s father had been receiving treatment for mental health problems from Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. During that treatment, Harry made threats against his wife and son, but those threats were not taken seriously by those treating him and were never communicated to his wife on the grounds of patient confidentiality. The case was later considered in a serious case review compiled by the local safeguarding children board in Cornwall. The report highlighted that Ben’s father had experienced mental health problems for two years and once had delusional thoughts about his son. The report concluded that no evidence could be found that mental health staff had considered the implications for Ben of his father’s return to live at the family home or considered that Harry’s co-operation with treatment to manage his delusional and paranoid systems was neither consistent nor maintained. On the contrary, no agency reported any child protection concerns regarding Ben or registered any concerns for his safety at the time of his death.

Although my constituent, Ben’s uncle, remains deeply dissatisfied with the failure to properly assess the risk to Ben and his mother, or to inform her of the delusional and paranoid thoughts that her husband had expressed to mental health staff, he is also anxious that there should be much more awareness of the public policy challenges of such cases. The issues cut across several areas of Government policy, and my aim today is to draw wider attention to some common themes that arise in such cases and to encourage the Government to consider a cross-departmental approach to understanding and responding to those issues.

Ben’s murder was front-page news in the media and daily newspapers. We can all recall cases that appear to have a similar theme. Richard and Clair Smith from Pudsey and their children, Aaron and Ben, were described as “the perfect family.” They similarly made news headlines two years ago when Richard stabbed and strangled his wife, before stabbing and suffocating his sons, aged nine and one. He then set fire to the family home, dying of smoke inhalation. Richard also had mental health problems. He was described as an obsessive and driven man who appeared to have been motivated by depression to seek the destruction of both himself and his entire family.

Just days before the Pudsey murders, another father reportedly turned on his family. Tobias Day, from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, had recently lost his job as a policeman. He killed his wife, Samantha, and seven-year-old daughter, Genevieve, and he tried to kill his two other children, Kimberly and Adam, before finally taking his own life. Just over a decade ago, Robert Mochrie murdered his wife and four children in Barry, South Wales, before calling the school bus operator to say that his 10-year-old disabled daughter would not be attending school that week; he also cancelled the milk. Later he hanged himself, surrounded by his murdered family. He had also been previously treated for depression.

“Family annihilation” is the generic term applied to such cases in the USA and has been adopted here. In essence, the cases are those in which a parent—almost invariably a man—murders his partner and his own children before going on to commit suicide.

Professor David Wilson and Dr Elizabeth Yardley of the centre for applied criminology at Birmingham City university have undertaken a historical analysis of such cases going back to the 1980s. Professor Wilson is also editor of The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, which recently published some preliminary findings from his research. I am grateful to Professor Wilson for his guidance on this debate.

Professor Wilson and his colleagues examined 71 cases in England and Wales between 1980 and 2012—59 involving fathers and 12 cases in which the mother was the murderer. In almost all the cases involving men, the wife or partner was included in the murders, but in the cases where the mother committed the crimes, the husband or partner was not a victim. An example of the latter is the Donnison case in 2010 in Heathfield, East Sussex, which neighbours the Minister’s constituency. That lends weight to the proposition that family annihilation might predominantly be about a personal crisis of masculinity.

Professor Wilson’s team has suggested that there are certain similarities that subdivide such crimes into four broad categories. Anomic cases are those in which the family is seen as directly linked to the economic and financial success of the father. When that is threatened, the perpetrator responds by seeking to destroy himself, his home and his entire family. Self-righteous cases are those in which the murderer blames the mother for a family breakdown. The pre-eminent role of the father is viewed by the murderer as pivotal to his own image and concept of family, which causes him to obliterate his family. Disappointed cases are those in which the father believes the family have turned against him and, for instance, failed to follow his strictures on family life or religious matters. Finally, paranoid cases are those in which the offender harbours mental health delusions about his family.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Is a distinction drawn in the research between the awful murders and more general, awful domestic violence, or is the former but the particularly ugly tip of the awful iceberg?

The research shows that in a number of cases, although not all, there is a history of domestic violence, and I will develop that theme. The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point.

It must be acknowledged that the incidence of family annihilation is mercifully low. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that some 60 children a year in England and Wales are killed by their parents, which is equivalent to about two thirds of all child murders. The numbers may be small, but child murders still represent more than 10% of all murders in our country. Although mothers and fathers are later found to be equally responsible for such deaths, the circumstances and ages of the killers and of the children killed are markedly different. Mothers are typically responsible for the murders of very young children in the aftermath of childbirth, for instance, because of post-natal depression or post-partum psychosis. Parliament has long recognised that phenomenon and passed the Infanticide Act 1938. Older children, however, are much more likely to be killed by their father. We tend to take small comfort from the idea that such instances are very rare. We see them as temporary losses of sanity and done in the heat of the moment when someone snaps. That idea provides a reassuring framework to explain what would otherwise be incomprehensible. That may be convenient and reassuring for us, but in many cases it is just not true. Researchers show that family annihilations are virtually all premeditated and typically executed with a chilling calmness and sense of purpose.

The trigger for such attacks seems to be, usually, relationship breakdown or a dispute over children when a relationship might already have ended. The Birmingham studies have identified a significant rise in cases of family annihilation during August, in the school holidays, and at weekends, when children are perhaps being passed from one parent to another. Half the cases identified by the research related to crimes committed at weekends.

I am concerned that the crime statistics do not separately record incidents of family annihilation, probably because of their rarity. Statistics are, however, compiled for infanticide, so the argument about the instance of family annihilation should not exclude consideration of compiling and publishing such figures. Professor Wilson has told me that he does not think that his work has been impeded by a lack of official statistical data, because the cases typically attract significant press attention, so the internet search capacity for press stories has tended to highlight most cases for the purposes of his research.

Previous studies—to come to the point made by the right hon. Gentleman—in particular that in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, emphasised the rareness of violence convictions among those who commit such offences. Of 203 cases examined in that study, only seven involved a killer with a previous criminal record of violence. That, however, does not tell the whole story. Professor Wilson has highlighted to me that in many cases subsequent inquests throw up evidence of some previous domestic abuse. The evidence tends to come from family or friends, but the abuse had not escalated to the point of criminal prosecution. That may be another reason why police forces and the courts should give closer attention to fully recording details of all accusations of domestic abuse. For too long, clearly, the domestic dispute has not been taken seriously enough by some serving police officers.

For that reason, I applaud the Home Secretary’s September announcement that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is being required to look at the performance of individual forces in England and Wales to examine the way in which they approach, investigate and record cases of domestic violence. I would prefer to see the review as one of a series of measures better to address the shortcomings in how we deal with such tragic cases. At the weekend, The Sunday Times reported that one of the cases the Home Secretary had in mind in ordering this review was the murder of Rachael Slack and her two-year old son, Auden, in Holbrook, Derbyshire, three years ago, by Auden’s father, who later committed suicide. The father had been treated for mental illness, but we do not know what information may have been shared by the mental health professionals.

Family annihilation seems to be rarer in the UK than in the USA or in some parts of Europe, and one of the factors driving that could be our tougher gun laws. The Birmingham researchers found that in the United States and some parts of Europe the greater prevalence of such weapons led to 80% of family murders being carried out with a gun; in the UK, that number is less than a fifth. Nevertheless, we have seen family annihilation cases in which unstable men had been permitted to have shotguns and firearms, but then used them to murder their families.

The Michael Atherton case is one shocking example. The murderer had been granted a licence for both shotguns and firearms even though he had been reported for domestic violence on many occasions. In fact, the weapons had been taken away from him after such an incident, and then returned. The police officer who had approved his application turned out to have been running his own dealership in confiscated weapons, while serving as an officer, which led to him receiving a suspended prison sentence. Atherton used his weapons to murder his partner and her relatives before killing himself.

I wish to emphasise one further shortcoming. When the perpetrator of such a crime commits suicide, the duty of the coroner seems to be limited to identifying how the deceased died and giving verdicts accordingly. Invariably, the cases are massively distressing for the surviving relatives, and coroners sometimes seem at pains to be guarded about saying anything negative about the perpetrator. There is no duty to undertake any further analysis of the background circumstances or the state of mind of the perpetrator, except for the purposes of determining the cause of death and who might have been responsible. That denies us the opportunity to learn any lessons.

Given the rare incidence of such cases, it has been suggested that they should merit a much deeper analysis through what some academics have called psychological autopsy. The true incidence of mental illness as a contributory factor could be helped by a detailed review of each case—there are not so many cases, so it should not be an onerous requirement. Perhaps it should involve examining coroners’ reports and police files, interviewing relatives, friends and contacts of the deceased, and analysing medical records from hospitals and general practitioners.

The Atherton case and that of the serial killer Derrick Bird led to a 2010 proposal that the individual health records of all NHS patients holding shotgun or firearms certificates be file-tagged with a recommendation that, if a GP considered that such a patient presented a risk to themselves or the public, the police should be alerted. That seemingly reasonable and prudent proposal to improve public safety was later vetoed by the Information Commissioner on the grounds of patient confidentiality, the self-same argument that led to the failure to alert my constituent’s sister-in-law to the danger his brother posed to her and her son’s safety.

The purpose of the debate is to draw greater attention to the phenomenon of family annihilation and to the important research that is being done to understand it better. My purpose is also to urge the Government to build on the Home Secretary’s review of police effectiveness in dealing with domestic violence by creating a cross-Government initiative to encourage better risk assessment and information sharing between health professionals, the police and members of the public who might be at risk; to promote better statistical information about cases of family annihilation; to examine the concept of undertaking psychological autopsies in cases in which the perpetrator of family murders has committed suicide, by undertaking a full assessment of the history of that person, including questioning family members; and, finally, further to strengthen gun control legislation to ensure that no person with a history of domestic abuse or who is suffering from mental illness can get access to lethal weapons.

As the Home Secretary said when she ordered her domestic violence review,

“We have a duty to provide vulnerable people with the best possible protection.”

Sadly, I feel that in Ben Philpotts’s case, and in many of the others I have highlighted in the debate, we have fallen a bit short in that duty. The general crime rate in this country is falling, but, though still mercifully rare, the number of cases of family annihilation is rising. There should be a public policy response to meet that challenge.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) for the opportunity to debate this important issue and for the lucid and measured way in which he presented his case. Family annihilation, or domestic homicide as it is more commonly known in this country, is a diabolical crime and one that the coalition Government is committed to tackling.

Fatal domestic abuse is all the more shocking in cases involving children. As my hon. Friend said, family annihilation has no established definition but is a term that is often used to describe the tragic circumstances in which a parent kills their children, and sometimes their partner, often before seeking to take their own life. As he said, such cases are rare in this country—the Home Office homicide index suggests that around six incidents of a parent killing one or more children and a current or former partner were recorded in 2011-12—but they are all the more appalling to us when they occur.

Child protection is a priority for the Government, and we are committed to ensuring that we have the best possible arrangements in place to protect children and families from harm. Only last week, I spoke to the House about my concerns regarding the circumstances of the deaths of Rachael Slack and her young son, Auden—to which case my hon. Friend referred—at the hands of Rachael’s mentally ill former partner. I outlined the steps that are being taken to review the apparent police failings in that case.

My hon. Friend rightly drew our attention to the tragic deaths, also in 2010, of Ben and Patricia Philpotts at the hands of Ben’s father, Harold. I am aware that a serious case review of the circumstances surrounding Ben’s death was published in August 2010 and that, sadly, it concluded that lack of communication between local agencies contributed to the risk that he and his mother faced. Action is being taken to address that failing, as I will set out later.

Closer to home, my hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the appalling incident in Cwmbran in September 2012, in which Carl Mills set fire to the house where his partner, Kayleigh Buckley, was staying with their six-month-old daughter, Kimberley, and her mother, Kim, resulting in the deaths of three generations of one family. I understand that a local review of that case is ongoing and that, in due course, it will be quality assured by a Home Office-chaired panel. The Government takes such cases extremely seriously. We must ensure that lessons are learned to deliver justice for those who have lost their lives. We must also do more than that; we must ensure that lessons are acted upon.

I am aware, as my hon. Friend is, of the recent study by Professor David Wilson and Dr Elizabeth Yardley of Birmingham City university regarding the behavioural patterns of male so-called family annihilators. I thank the authors for their attempt to bring new learning to such a difficult area, with a sensitive and well written report. However, I do not agree that domestic homicide is on the rise. Official statistics from the homicide index show that the domestic homicide rate has remained stubbornly static over the past decade at around two a week.

My key focus is to ensure that we do everything that we can to support local agencies to reduce the occurrence of such tragic events. To help to achieve that, the coalition Government has instigated a new process, so that every local report on a domestic homicide is reviewed and quality assured by a panel of independent and Home Office experts. I understand that such a review is ongoing in the case of Kayleigh, Kim and Kimberley Buckley. Each review results in a tailored action plan that must be delivered by the area in question to ensure that we learn from individual tragedies. The Home Office will shortly issue a document collating the lessons learned from those reviews into a national action plan. I hope that that meets some of my hon. Friend’s concerns.

On child protection services, following the publication of Professor Eileen Munro’s review, the Government has published a new version of “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, which provides statutory guidance for all professionals who work to protect children. The new guidance is less bureaucratic and puts more trust in front-line skilled professionals. The guidance clarifies the core legal requirements, by making it much clearer what individuals and organisations should do to keep children safe and to promote their welfare. The guidance provides a national framework within which local agencies and professionals draw up and agree their own ways to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

The Government has also made a series of reforms to the police’s handling of domestic violence and child abuse. All police forces have measures in place to ensure that officers have the knowledge and skills to deal effectively with cases of child abuse and domestic violence. Specific training on domestic violence and abuse is included in the national police training curriculum. That 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 that may end in tragedy—the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) referred to this—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.

The police play an important part in local child safeguarding arrangements and have a statutory responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and to investigate child abuse and other crimes committed against children. The police have a legal duty of care. As well as their duty to investigate criminal offences, they have emergency powers to enter premises and to provide immediate protection for children who are believed to be at risk of significant harm. Nationally, we are working to ensure that local police and children’s services are best placed to respond to allegations of child abuse, and our existing arrangements have been further strengthened with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre becoming a core part of the National Crime Agency.

The 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 to have their voices heard, and 54 multi-agency risk assessment co-ordinators to protect the interests of those who are most at risk, by bringing all agencies together to promote information sharing and to drive up a joined-up local response to supporting victims.

In the various welcome collaborative initiatives that the Minister has mentioned, will the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) about mental health professionals having knowledge of the potential risk to others in the community be addressed?

Yes. I addressed the mental health issue in part during an Adjournment debate last week, but I have asked my office to investigate further the Information Commissioner’s ruling, which is what I believe the right hon. Gentleman is referring to, and rightly so. It is an important point.

Up to 60% of abuse victims report no further violence following intervention by independent advisers, so clearly they are working effectively to some degree.

National funding operates in tandem with local initiatives. Local safeguarding children’s boards bring together local authorities, health organisations, the police and others to co-ordinate member agencies in protecting and promoting children’s welfare. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North will join me in endorsing the Cardiff Health Alliance’s multi-agency approach to supporting victims of domestic and sexual abuse and integrating child protection and domestic abuse training to ensure a joined-up local approach. It is vital that all local authorities remember the importance of such initiatives when making difficult decisions about spending in coming months.

We must do more nationally to reach out to those caught in a cycle of abuse, which is why the Home Office has piloted two initiatives to empower victims and to stop domestic abuse in its tracks. The first of these is the domestic violence disclosure scheme, known popularly as Clare’s law, which offers the opportunity for anyone to seek disclosure of a partner’s violent past. Those who have the legal right to know are provided with information that could save lives, which empowers them to make an informed choice about their future.

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. That offers both the victim and the perpetrator the chance to reflect on the incident. It provides the victim with an opportunity to determine the best course of action to end a cycle of abuse and sometimes stops the unsatisfactory requirement for them having to leave the house for their own safety. We are carrying out an evaluation of both of pilots, and we expect to be able to announce plans for their future this year.

The Home Office has funded a project to improve the understanding of the different local multi-agency models in place to support the sharing of information about safeguarding responses for children and vulnerable people. The project recognises that many areas are considering new and different ways to deliver services and aims to develop a national picture of what models are already in place—for example, multi-agency safeguarding hubs and co-located assessment or specialist teams.

The project will increase our collective understanding of what is happening and provide a practical exchange of learning and experience to local areas that are looking to develop their multi-agency working and information-sharing arrangements. Early findings from the project were released in July, as part of accelerated action from the Government’s new national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people. The report provides information to help local areas that want to put in place more effective local multi-agency approaches and responses. The Government are now developing a further package of support to ensure the early identification of children and families who are at risk and to ensure that agencies are best placed to prevent abuse from happening.

I turn to the four specific points that my hon. Friend made. On risk assessment, I hope that he has been reassured to hear about the work that has taken place since the tragic events of 2010 to establish multi-agency risk assessment conferences and, more recently, wider work to promote multi-agency safeguarding models, such as multi-agency safeguarding hubs, which draw together local agencies to protect those who are at highest risk. I agree that, although patient confidentiality is important, it cannot be allowed to stand in the way of saving lives. The right hon. Member for Oxford East rightly made that point. I am happy to reassure him that the national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, which I lead, has identified the sharing of information as a critical issue and is working on advice to dispel myths that prevent the effective sharing of information.

My hon. Friend asked a valuable question about the recording of statistics. I am happy to reassure him that the Home Office homicide index retains detailed information about domestic cases. He made the point that, in considering the level of data captured, we must consider whether the additional detail justifies the resources needed to obtain them. That is a balance to be judged.

On post-homicide reviews, I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about the limitations of coroner’s inquests, but I am sure he will be reassured to hear that coroners are under a legal duty to refer cases involving the death of children to the local children’s safeguarding board in a process that triggers a serious case review, as happened in the Philpott case.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased about the Government’s initiation of the domestic homicide review process. I agree that we must be joined-up in addressing domestic violence, which is why, for example, I undertook in the House last week to raise our approach to mental health in domestic violence cases with the Department of Health at the next inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, which I will attend and which will be chaired by the Home Secretary.

My hon. Friend referred to the importance of gun control in the context of domestic abuse. I am happy to tell him that, as part of the revised guide on firearms licensing law, we have introduced new, detailed guidance on firearms and domestic violence for the police that makes it clear that evidence of domestic violence will generally indicate that a person should not be permitted to possess a gun.

So-called family annihilation seems to transgress the fundamental natural instinct to protect that we expect a parent to feel for a child. Understandably, these cases cause shock and outrage, but we must appreciate the complexity of the circumstances that may contribute to such tragic outcomes, and continue to co-ordinate a joined-up approach to tackling child abuse and domestic and sexual violence to protect those who are most at risk. Through our violence against women and girls action plan and the national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, which I now lead, the Government has made significant strides towards a better reality for the victims of child and domestic abuse. However, we recognise that there is still much to do.

Only last week, I raised my concerns about domestic abuse at a meeting of all chief constables, and in the coming weeks I will meet representatives of third-sector groups and the Director of Public Prosecutions. I look forward to discussing our plans with them. It is vital that we protect those who are vulnerable to the worst crimes. I look forward to updating Parliament on our continued progress in tackling domestic violence and child abuse in the coming months.