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Violence against Women

Volume 734: debated on Thursday 19 January 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the outcome of the cross-Whitehall consultation commissioned by the Home Secretary on the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence will be made available to the House.

My Lords, the cross-Whitehall consultation identified a number of issues requiring further consideration before a final decision can be made on whether to sign the convention. As part of this further consideration, the Home Office launched a public consultation on 12 December last year on whether to create a new criminal offence of forced marriage. The consultation ends on 30 March.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Given the importance that the Government give to tackling violence against women and their view that it is essential that the UK takes a strong lead on the issue internationally, can he advise the House of the timetable for signing the convention, which would both indicate their commitment to this issue and give a lead to other Council of Europe member states—18 of which have now signed up to the convention?

My Lords, I cannot take the noble Baroness much further than saying that the consultation on forced marriage will end on 30 March. We will obviously have to respond after that and consider—as the Prime Minister made quite clear last year—whether forced marriage should become a criminal offence in itself. However, we also have to look at other issues, particularly whether extra-territorial jurisdiction should be extended. There are very real problems in that area. The simple fact is that we can only sign up to the convention as a whole—we cannot sign up to it in part. Until we can get decisions on all parts of it, we will not be in a position to sign up. However, I make it quite clear to the noble Baroness that we broadly support the intention behind the convention.

My Lords, we currently have the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers in the Council of Europe, and this issue affects and concerns noble Peers across all sides of the House and is widespread in this and other countries. Would it not be a wonderful opportunity, despite the reservations that my noble friend has rightly announced, to get on with this and get our signature on the paper before we leave the chair of that excellent organisation?

My Lords, we would like to make progress on this, but the concerns, particularly in relation to extra-territorial jurisdiction, are very real indeed. My noble friend will be aware that, at the moment, we believe that extra-territorial jurisdiction should apply only to very serious crimes such as murder or torture. To sign up to this, we would have to change the law to make it cover such matters as common assault or harassment. We do not think that that is necessarily the right way to go about these things. However, colleagues in the Ministry of Justice will certainly look at these issues.

My Lords, major events such as the Olympics tend to attract a lot of visitors to this country, particularly from groups involved in things such as trafficking, which, as we all know, involves violence against women. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will get the report out as soon as possible to the vast majority of those who are interested in this subject, not least because we have been looking at this subject of violence against women for very many days under the Welfare Reform Bill and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

My Lords, I would not want to foreshorten the consultation, which ends, as I said, on the 30 March, but obviously we want to respond as quickly as possible after that. As for trafficking, the noble Baroness will be aware that we have recently brought in some amendments to the Protection of Freedoms Bill that help us to comply with the convention on those matters, and I believe we will be very broadly compliant with that convention. However, that goes slightly wider than the Question on the Order Paper.

My Lords, do the Government have any intention of accepting the advice of ACPO and, indeed, of his noble friend Lady Trumpington on tackling violence against women working in the sex industry, who are afraid of reporting assaults on them because if they make those reports they are likely to be charged under the laws relating to prostitution. Is it not time that the law on prostitution was changed along the lines adopted in New Zealand and as ACPO suggests?

My Lords, the noble Lord is taking the issue way beyond the Question on the Order Paper, which relates to the Council of Europe’s convention. Obviously we will consider those points, but those are matters for domestic law and not matters relating to compliance with this convention, which relates to combating violence against women.

My Lords, I welcome the consultation being across Whitehall, because many agencies are involved in the many issues. How are we to reconcile the localist approach of police and crime commissioners and candidates with an eye to election with the need to ensure that police budgets contain an adequate line for what is essentially not a very populist issue? In other words, how do we make it a populist issue?

My Lords, again my noble friend is going way beyond the Question on the Order Paper in bringing in the subject of police commissioners. We are talking about whether we can comply with this Council of Europe convention—compliance that involves changing the law in a number of areas. That is what we are consulting on at the moment, but we are also looking at other issues, particularly extra-territorial jurisdiction.

Is the Minister aware that the Prime Minister is going to visit the Council of Europe next week and that his right honourable friend the Attorney-General will visit in April? I do not expect anything from the Prime Minister next week, but the period of consultation will be finished by the time the Attorney-General comes. Would it not be a good opportunity to build some bridges with other countries if the Attorney-General were in a position to make a positive statement on this issue at the April plenary session?

My Lords, I have already indicated our broad support for what is going on, but it involves some quite serious changes to domestic legislation in this country and, I must stress, also in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the devolved Administrations, so we would need their agreement as well. It is not that easy suddenly to say that we will extend extra-territorial jurisdiction to all the issues to which I referred earlier, such as assault, when we have had the tradition of reserving them only for more serious offences. These are matters that we will obviously want to look at very seriously within government.