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Domestic Abuse and Public Life

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered domestic abuse and public life.

I am delighted to have secured this debate ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women this Friday. Domestic abuse can affect people from all social classes and in all forms of employment, including public life. That is why I am working with MPs from all parties to call for a duty of care to be placed on employers and political parties to ensure that survivors of domestic abuse are not exposed to further harassment. There must be recognition that post-separation control and harassment is a form of domestic abuse itself and can occur long after a relationship or marriage has ended, with different tactics of abuse being used.

I would like to draw attention to the work of the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse, which I am honoured to chair, in examining several key issues and policy areas where change is needed to support survivors. I am particularly pleased to see the hon. Member for Burton (Kate Kniveton) here today. I pay tribute to her for her bravery and courage in speaking out about her experiences, and I thank her for the support and solidarity she has shown me.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate, which means so much to us both. Does she agree that those of us in public life who have a platform and feel able to should help to eradicate the stigma and shame that many victims of domestic abuse feel by speaking out and raising awareness of the fact that domestic abuse can happen to anybody? By raising awareness, we can encourage those who do not have a platform to speak out and to speak without shame, so that perpetrators of this awful crime, which is so often committed behind closed doors, can no longer be so sure that their crime will go unnoticed.

I completely agree with the hon. Member; she is absolutely correct. It is so important to be able to give others the hope and courage to come forward. Those of us in public life, I am sure, feel a duty to encourage others to come forward, and feel quite lucky to be in a position to do so.

I want to make it clear that I do not view myself as a victim as such, nor am I seeking to play the “victim card”. In fact, I would argue that such accusations reflect not my weakness, but the weakness of those who make them. The truth is that it is extremely difficult for survivors to come forward. The stigma and the structural and systemic bias is always against us. The use of the courts and the law to threaten and silence us, never mind the trauma of the abuse itself, all too often seems insurmountable.

When I put myself forward to represent my local area, it was with hope for the future. Perhaps stupidly, I thought I could move on. Little did I know then that, a few years later, I would be in court facing a possible jail sentence and, just this June, I would have to present myself to A&E and subsequently be signed off sick. Just as I manage to survive one onslaught, another is coming up ahead—it goes on and on. The wall of institutional gaslighting is chilling.

I have a choice: to submit, to be crushed and then to be swept under the carpet as an unsightly problem, or to speak out. But I know this is not just about me. My experiences have shown that, despite steps forward, including the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, there is still insufficient understanding and awareness. I am very conscious of how survivors struggle against a system that fails them. Today is for them, and I am moved to see campaigners and local women watching this debate.

When I was studying at university, I lived at home, helping care for my father through an extended period of dementia up to his death. I got to know an older man, who had already been married twice, and ended up marrying him and moving in with him. As the relationship progressed, it became more and more volatile and abusive. By the end, I was sleeping in the living room with the sofa pushed up against the door so that he could not get in. I had to wait until he had an appointment in another city before I could plan my escape.

It is commonly assumed that a woman should just leave and her problems will be over, but that is far from the reality for so many. At its core, post-separation abuse is about power: attempting to control and punish in almost any way possible, whether through physical means such as violence, intimidation, threats or stalking, or via remote monitoring, emotional abuse and manipulation. I raised my ex-husband’s behaviour, including the abuse, stalking, harassment and intimidation, with the police on several occasions. Police records regarding him include his being issued with a warning for harassment.

Gradually, I began to rebuild my life, which involved becoming engaged in politics locally, but he continued to make things difficult, including by behaving threateningly and aggressively towards me in public. As soon as I started to indicate that I was going to put myself forward to become Labour’s parliamentary candidate in the general election, it all intensified even further, because of course I was just meant to stay in my lane and be little Apsana Begum. He told people that he was angry that I had not asked his permission to stand for selection.

Smears and rumours were spread about me, and there were threats that he would expose me for who I “really was” in front of the community. I was aware that he had pictures of me without my hijab on; if someone threatens to use something like that against someone now in this country, it is considered an act of intimate image abuse. He was privy to private information: my medical records, my previous mental ill health, and the fact that I had a secret abortion during the early stages of our relationship, which at the time was unknown to anyone, including my family.

This honour-based harassment was about maliciously destroying me in front of elder members of my community. He called campaign team members, making threats that he had been contacted by the media, who had offered to buy stories about me, and telling people that they should make me stand down or else. It all got even worse after I was elected to Parliament. How dare I not listen? How dare I not do what I was told? There were calls to local people who supported me when he was drunk, saying that evidence was being collected for the council to take me to court. He was a sitting councillor at that time.

As such, just two years after being elected as the UK’s first hijab-wearing MP, I had to endure an eight-day trial, which brutally forced me to talk about painful private experiences. While I was found innocent of all charges, I fear that the ordeal of that trial, which cost the council significantly more than the amount I was accused of defrauding it of in the first place, will haunt me for the rest of my life.

The practice of abusers misusing the court system to maintain power and control over their former or current partners, a method sometimes called vexatious or abusive litigation—in other words, stalking by way of the court—is recognised by experts as a form of domestic abuse. I want to explain why I believe this case to have been vexatious and why I want something like it never to happen again.

I first heard of the complaint that led to the case through threats, rumours and the press a month before even being informed officially that an investigation was under way. An article published in The Sun newspaper during the general election even showed a picture of the building where I lived, which was extremely frightening given the risk that this placed me under. I have since found out that the complaint that led to the investigation was made by my ex-husband’s brother-in-law, Syed Nahid Uddin, to coincide with the deadline for final nomination papers to be submitted.

During the trial, my barrister, Helen Law, brought out, through cross-examination of the fraud investigator from the council’s fraud team, a series of conflicts of interest, including that my ex-husband was a member of the council’s audit committee in the same year of the fraud investigation. That committee had governance and oversight over the work of the fraud team. The matter of domestic abuse was actually used against me by the prosecution. It was argued that the abuse was a motive for the alleged crimes. Raj Chada, the criminal defence partner at Hodge Jones & Allen who represented me, argues:

“Prosecutors and investigators need to better understand and consider how victims of coercive control and domestic abuse behave and how they are treated by the criminal justice system.”

At around the same time that I was going through the ordeal of the court case, a group of people who were close to my ex-husband took over the local Labour party, and despite my being vindicated the smears have continued and accountability has been thwarted. Motions in support of me were passed by the local party, but only after they were blocked from even being discussed for months on end. Meanwhile, people who supported me or spoke up for me continued to be targeted, including some who were contacted by my ex-husband himself. I believe that to be an example of what is often called indirect abuse, whereby threats are made against third parties or they are intimidated or manipulated into engaging in behaviours desired by the perpetrator. Those behaviours involve the use of proxies to humiliate and discipline, and ultimately to maintain power and control.

Most recently, while I was unwell, a trigger process —a process that my party uses to decide whether a sitting MP will remain the candidate at future elections— was conducted. Again, I am aware of my ex-husband’s involvement: there are even witnesses who saw him among the reportedly 50 men who stood outside one meeting in a way that many felt was intimidating. In my mind, it is no coincidence that the process was overseen by his associates. To explain and provide further evidence of that conflict of interest, I will give some examples. The procedure secretary who oversees the whole trigger process is close to my ex-husband, and has publicly credited him as one of the reasons why they were elected to their role. One of the local executive observers for two out of the four in-person meetings, who was secretary for another meeting, is a close friend of my ex-husband and has been pictured with him only recently on social media. Another has been the subject of a complaint after he sent an email to all branch members containing a copy of a letter repeating allegations of which I had been cleared and revealing my home address, putting me at risk.

Another close associate of my ex-husband was the secretary overseeing one of the meetings. He had previously been warned by the police to stop harassing me after I reported him for continuing to contact me; I had to ask him to stop unwanted contact after he posted a letter to me through my family member’s letterbox. The chair of one of the meetings was a long-time associate of my ex-husband, who had even approached me in 2018 and asked me to meet him, advocating on my ex-husband’s behalf that I should go back into a relationship with him. I also understand that comments were made in meetings about the fact that I speak too much about domestic abuse, and that the process was about teaching me a lesson. Even the delegated national executive observer has connections to my ex-husband.

Of course, it is up to individuals who they wish to associate with. My point is that such people cannot also oversee a process about my future, because not only can domestic abuse be indirect, but it can involve the use of public status and societal power. That is before one even considers that the trigger process was conducted while I was unwell, and that a litany of complaints have been submitted containing allegations of harassment and misogyny, particularly from local women. I am still in a situation where I have to risk-assess local events, and am unable to participate if the risk is too high or cannot be mitigated. I believe that there must be a duty to ensure inclusive, democratic and safe environments and it deeply saddens me that I continue to be placed in a position where, for safeguarding reasons, I am being prevented from participating fully in public life.

As I have said, my experiences are far from unique. I have been contacted by women and survivors from all over the country and I feel a tremendous duty towards them. Domestic abuse has been hidden for far too long, despite it having serious health consequences for individuals and our society, but after everything I have been through and whatever the future holds, I am determined to raise awareness and campaign for a society where individuals experiencing domestic abuse feel confident that they will be believed, listened to, and given the support they need. Ultimately, I want the UK to be a country where survivors are not thwarted by ongoing harassment and abuse.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I take stock of and am impressed by the courage of all victims of domestic abuse, from whichever walk of life, who have to deal with misogynistic physically and mentally abusive behaviour. It is a pleasure to address this Chamber. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) for requesting the debate and for speaking so openly and candidly about her terrible experiences. I thank everyone else for attending, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Kniveton) for her contribution.

We can all agree that domestic abuse has no place in our society. It is a terrible crime with devastating consequences. It is high volume, affecting 2.3 million adults a year. It is also high harm and high cost. The social and economic costs of domestic abuse are estimated to be in the region of £77 billion. Our Parliament and our institutions must play a role in addressing it and making sure victims are supported and feel supported. No one should have to experience the abuse we have heard about today and the Government are determined to tackle violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned domestic abuse and I want to come on to that. Domestic abuse is the all-too-common form of violence against women and girls, but it is emotional abuse too. In July last year, as a Government we published our tackling violence against women and girls strategy to help ensure that women and girls are safe everywhere—at home, online, at work and on the streets. In March, we published our tackling domestic abuse plan, our blueprint for delivering the change that is so badly needed. Our violence against women and girls strategy and domestic abuse plan aim to transform the whole of society’s response to those crimes to prevent abuse, support victims, pursue perpetrators and strengthen the systems in place to respond. The tackling domestic abuse plan committed more than £230 million of investment to that purpose, including £140 million for supporting claims and more than £81 million for tackling issues regarding perpetrators.

We are making good progress with implementing our commitments in the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and the tackling domestic abuse plan. To give a few examples, we have launched a highly successful communications campaign called “Enough”, which has reached millions and surpassed all expectations. It is a wonderful initiative that focuses on the range of safe ways in which bystanders can intervene and help women who are suffering such incidents. The fourth round of funding from the safer streets fund was announced in July, an initiative that has been taken out across the whole nation. Through the fund, the sum of £125 million has been awarded. We have also supported the appointment of the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for violence against women and girls to drive better policing of such crimes. We have doubled our funding for the national domestic abuse helpline and increased our funding for other helplines too. We have also increased funding to support children—it is worth noting that this not only affects individuals who are adults, but children too. Millions of pounds a year will support seven bespoke projects related to children, who are also victims. I know the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse does not like the term “victim”, but we need to protect and empower those who are victims in equal measure.

We introduced the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which the hon. Lady has mentioned. It includes the first general purpose definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that it is not just physical, but can be emotional, controlling or coercive and can relate to economic abuse. Through the Act, we have also introduced new offences and it was salient that not everybody in the Chamber voted for that. The Act created the new offences of threatening to disclose intimate images and non-fatal strangulation and also prohibited perpetrators from cross-examining their victims in family courts and civil proceedings. That is huge progress and was probably unthinkable when I first qualified at the Bar in 1988. We have made progress, but there is more to do.

I was particularly moved by the hon. Lady’s explanations about abuse extending post-separation. That is something that the Government know much about and there is academic research on the subject. That is why the work on the landmark Domestic Abuse Act is so important, delivering new support and protection for victims as well as the new offences I have mentioned. The Act also recognised for the first time—something that the Government are very proud of—that controlling or coercive behaviour does not stop at the point of separation.

I am grateful for the private information that has been publicly shared in this Chamber. I was very moved by what has been said. There is a huge amount I wish to say, but I have been trying to focus particularly on what has been said. I want to mention the courage of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse in calling this debate and coming back into public life, as well as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton. It takes a huge amount of effort to come back to work and carry on after this sort of incident.

Nobody should have to bear stigma or shame. We are a modern country and it is not good enough. I will do my best in my ministerial position to support victims. I am pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Burton that she feels strong enough to speak out and encourage those who do not have a platform to speak for themselves. The debate is part of that journey, and I commend all involved for being here today.

I note the general concerns on so-called honour-based harassment, vexatious issues of litigation and the use of proxies or third parties to spread maliciousness and lies. All those issues need to and will be considered carefully. It is a tricky balance in looking at what can be considered as clear, provable abuse and what happens behind the scenes. That is part of the reason why the police have an onus through their new training to look at the whole picture. They must and should look at the whole picture, not just one incident that happened at a certain time on a certain date. They need to look at the overall picture and history.

The Government are funding extra work on risk assessments for cases with a history of domestic violence and abuse. I urge the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse to seek police advice where necessary. If there is a physical risk to her being that prevents her from being not only an ordinary citizen, but the extraordinary citizen that she is as an elected MP, she must seek advice. Wherever I can, I will seek to help her.

Let me move on to standards in public life and the working culture in Parliament and other organisations, which are issues close to all our hearts. The crime survey for England and Wales, which reaches thousands of people annually, shows that women and people from minoritised groups are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse. We have a responsibility to tackle these issues and ensure that we listen to and support victims.

The Government work very closely with organisations that seek to improve employers’ responses to domestic abuse, including the employers’ initiative on domestic abuse and the employers domestic abuse covenant. It is vital that employers, including police forces and other frontline services, as well as Parliament, can effectively respond to domestic abuse. Developing robust policies to ensure that all employees feel supported and empowered in their workplace is critical to that.

In Parliament, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was set up in 2018 to improve the working culture of Parliament. The House of Commons also agreed to establish an independent expert panel to determine sanctions against MPs should a case of bullying or harassment be upheld. Although these steps are welcome, there is clearly more to do in all walks of life. The Government have made it clear that there is no place for bullying, harassment or sexual harassment in Parliament—or elsewhere. We will continue to work on a cross-party basis to ensure that everyone working in Parliament is treated with dignity and respect.

On internal political issues, I do not think it would be right for me, as an observer, to make any major value judgments, save to say that I have heard about a very worrying picture. I hope and wish that transparency will come forward and we will hear the true facts. If things are as dreadful as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse has said, I wish her the best of luck in clarifying her future. It does not matter what area a victim works in, where they live, or what sex, colour or religion they are—domestic abuse is not acceptable. The Government will work wherever we can to try to stamp out domestic abuse and uphold proper standards in this place.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.