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Domestic Abuse Victims

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2019

4. What support his Department provides to victims of domestic abuse in taking abusive former partners to court. (908990)

Domestic abuse is a dreadful crime. We are determined to ensure that those who commit it face justice and that the victims of it are supported and feel able to come forward. A range of measures is available to support victims in taking their abuser to court, including eligibility to apply for special measures, and the use of video links and recorded evidence. However, we believe that we can and should do more, as we set out in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which was published last week.

In June 2012, Eystna Blunnie, a 20-year-old, heavily pregnant young woman, was unlawfully beaten to death by her abusive former partner—her unborn child also died—despite the abuser being known to the authorities and the Crown Prosecution Service. Will my hon. Friend take steps to strengthen the support and protection available to victims of domestic abuse to help to prevent such tragedies from ever happening again and so that such a situation never occurs in Harlow again?

I was sorry to hear about the dreadful and tragic case of Eystna Blunnie in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Strengthening the protections that are available to victims lies at the heart of the draft Bill. Its provisions include automatic eligibility for special measures in court for domestic abuse victims and, to better protect victims, a new domestic abuse protection order to enforce more stringent conditions on suspected and convicted perpetrators where breach will constitute a criminal offence.

Before Christmas, Sammy Woodhouse and I met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer). Will the Minister update the House on the action taken after that meeting, particularly in relation to guidance issued to local authorities on exemption regarding the duty to notify? Is the Department willing to conduct a review to get to the heart of the scale of the issue that affected Sammy?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and to Sammy for their work in highlighting the terrible situation and looking at what more can be done. I know that she had a positive meeting with my hon. and learned Friend and we are determined that the family court system should never be used to coerce or re-victimise those who have been abused. My hon. and learned Friend is liaising with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services in respect of councils’ obligations and has invited the president of the family division to consider clarifying the practice direction on notification.

The Public Accounts Committee held an inquiry into children’s social services yesterday. Does my hon. Friend agree that domestic violence is one of the key causes of the growth in the number of children being taken into care in local authorities? Will the Department work closely with the Department for Education to ensure that children’s social services have the information and finances that they need to deal with that growing problem?

I can offer my hon. Friend the reassurance that we are working extremely closely with colleagues across Government to do that. We often see that some of the young people who end up in the criminal justice system have come from homes or families where they have witnessed domestic abuse. It is incumbent on us all to do all we can to tackle that.

Practice direction 12J requires that a court must be sure, when ordering parental contact, that neither the child nor the other parent is at risk of harm. The direction makes it clear that this is an obligatory requirement, but campaign groups and lawyers say that its implementation is patchy, as we saw in the Sammy Woodhouse case. Will the Government task the new domestic abuse commissioner with responsibility for monitoring its implementation, with annual reports of any breaches to be laid before Parliament?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for her question, and I should have said in response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) that I knew that the shadow Minister was concerned about this case and had done work on it. As I have set out, in the shorter term we have asked the president of the family division to look at that practice guidance to see whether it is working as it should. The hon. Lady mentioned the domestic abuse commissioner. In the context of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, the commissioner will have powers to investigate these matters. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady, as my opposite number, to discuss how that might work in practice.