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Domestic Violence (Legal Framework)

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2014

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the investigation of allegations of domestic violence, for duties on the police in respect of domestic violence, for risk assessment and training in connection with related criminal proceedings in England and Wales; and for connected purposes.

In March 2013, a new cross-government definition of domestic violence was adopted. It defines domestic violence as

“any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological; physical; sexual; financial; and emotional”

harm. At present, not all those behaviours are criminal offences, meaning that there are gaps in the current law that are failing victims of domestic violence. Perpetrators are thus able to abuse their partners without facing arrest for that behaviour.

The principal gap in current legislative provisions is that coercive control is not considered an offence in the law of England and Wales. In the Government’s definition, coercive control is defined as

“an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.”

That is not currently a legal definition. The Bill I am seeking to introduce today would therefore give the Government’s definition of domestic violence statutory underpinning, meaning that a perpetrator could be arrested for an incident or pattern of incidents of abusive behaviour encompassing, but not limited to, those provided for in the Government’s definition.

The Bill would also provide that a court should request a pre-sentence report prior to sentencing and would give the option for courts to rule that a perpetrator must attend a domestic violence programme when in prison. If found guilty, an offender would be liable, on summary conviction, to serve a community order or up to 12 months in prison, while an offender on conviction on indictment for more serious circumstances could face up to 14 years in prison.

Domestic violence is pervasive in our society. Every minute, police across the country will receive a domestic violence-related call. In 2011-12 there were 2 million victims of domestic abuse in the UK, with 7% of women reporting that they had suffered domestic abuse in the last year. Two out of every three incidents reported to the police are reported by victims who have suffered more than one incident of abuse. Women, on average, report abusive behaviour to the police only after they have suffered at least 30 incidents of abuse. Crime data released by the Office for National Statistics have revealed that reports of domestic violence increased by 2.5% in England and Wales last year, with 838,026 cases in 2012-13.

Those are not trivial incidents. However, according to Women’s Aid, in the five years up to 2011 only 6.5% of domestic violence incidents reported to the police resulted in a conviction. Every week, two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner. Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, has said that each domestic violence homicide costs the state £1.3 million, quite apart from the obvious personal and family suffering. In 2008 the physical and mental health care of abused women cost the NHS a staggering £1.7 billion.

Anyone can become a victim of domestic violence, regardless of financial means or cultural background, and we therefore need to see a fundamental change in the way in which allegations of domestic violence are treated by the police. I certainly do not think that changing the law, by and of itself, will solve this, but it will go some way towards emphasising the prevalence of this behaviour and its impact on victims.

As I said, the absence of an offence of coercive control is a contributing factor to the low rates of reporting, arrests and convictions in domestic violence cases. At present, our criminal system is perhaps too focused on the physical evidence of violent crimes committed against a victim. Coercive control, on the other hand, does not leave scars or bruises, but is every bit as debilitating. That is why I am concerned with securing greater redress for the predominantly female victims of domestic violence; they can be male as well, of course. From 2011 to 2012, I had the privilege of chairing an independent parliamentary inquiry into reforming the law on stalking, which resulted in new offences of stalking being introduced in March 2012. Inasmuch as it focuses on the psychological impact of a non-physical crime on a victim, the new section 4A offence of stalking involves putting someone in serious alarm or distress. That was pioneering, and it has formed the basis of my recommendations in the Bill surrounding the criminalising of coercive control.

I would suggest that defining a crime in respect of its impact on its victim is the pattern that should be followed in this regard. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that several police forces are choosing not to make use of the more serious section 4A offence of stalking. Regrettably, the vast majority of police forces have yet to implement training in the new stalking laws for all officers. Having said that, I am pleased to note that the latest figures are more encouraging. In the year ending in December 2013, 566 alleged perpetrators reached the first stage in court, of whom 144 were charged with the more serious section 4A offence. Were any new offences relating to domestic violence introduced, it would of course be crucial that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service were made to undergo training in the realities of domestic violence cases and, crucially, the dynamics of abuse. That is why the Bill would place a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that training is given to criminal justice professionals in any new legislation covering domestic violence. Police would also have a duty to develop and implement domestic violence policies that encouraged the arrest and charging of perpetrators and made investigation of complaints a priority.

In recent months, there has been a great deal of discussion about the need for a more victims-focused justice system, and that is right. Indeed, Keir Starmer has called for a victims’ law—a call that I and many others in this House, I am sure, wholeheartedly support. I believe that any new legislation would need to be informed by the experience of victims. Next week, a coalition of organisations in the domestic violence sector, including Paladin, Women’s Aid and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation, will launch, as part of a wider campaign, a sector survey and a victims’ survey, both of which seek to identify gaps in the current legislation surrounding domestic violence. I hope that in the coming months the Government will listen to the findings of those surveys and act on them accordingly.

My Bill is only a starting point for discussions on this topic. It is a working draft, if you will, which I hope will ignite a debate in this place—and beyond, of course—about the changes that need to occur to give greater protection to victims of domestic violence and to ensure that perpetrators of this offence are made to answer properly for their behaviour. I extend my thanks to the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group and to the National Association of Probation Officers for sponsoring the Bill in its current form. I also thank the Members from all parties who have lent their support to the Bill, several of whom are present in the Chamber today. The fact that the Bill has received such cross-party support is really indicative of the appetite for reform that exists in this place.

I end by emphasising that the views of victims must inform whatever changes take place. It is they, after all, whom we are trying to protect, and it is for them that these changes need to occur.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Mr Robert Buckland, Sandra Osborne, Mrs Cheryl Gillan, Mr John Leech, Sir Bob Russell, John McDonnell, Sir Edward Garnier, Caroline Lucas, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Jeremy Corbyn and Hywel Williams present the Bill.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 June and to be printed (Bill 176).