My Lords, it is a great pleasure to bring this important Private Member’s Bill to your Lordships’ House. It has been guided with conviction and passion through the other place by its sponsor, Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP. Its purpose is to unblock the log-jam which has thus far delayed ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which is better known as the Istanbul convention. It also puts on a statutory footing important mechanisms to hold the Government to account in their progress towards ratification.
The UK signed the Istanbul convention in June 2012, having played an important role in its negotiation and drafting. However, despite the important progress made by the present and previous Governments—including a range of new legislation that prepares the UK for compliance with the treaty, and repeated verbal commitments to the principle of ratification—the process has stalled and, nearly five years on, the treaty remains unratified.
The Istanbul convention is unique, ground-breaking international legislation which enshrines the basic human right of women and girls to live free from violence in both the public and private spheres. Preventing violence against women and domestic violence can save lives and reduce human suffering. The convention focuses on three important aims: preventing violence against women, protecting victims and survivors of abuse, and prosecuting perpetrators. It brings greater coherence, consistency and strategic direction to the important work already undertaken by organisations, communities and governments that aims to eliminate all forms of violence and discrimination against women and promote substantive equality between women and men. It has been hailed as the best piece of international policy and practice for eliminating violence against women that exists anywhere. It is the first legislation that sets minimum standards for government responses to victims and survivors of gender-based violence. The Istanbul convention is broad in scope, and the aims are very specific. Covering criminal, civil and migration law, it sets minimum standards for the protection of survivors and for access to services.
Governments who ratify the convention are required to work to prevent violence and bring about an attitudinal change. It explicitly covers many manifestations of gender- based violence, including physical and psychological abuse, stalking, sexual violence including rape, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and so-called honour crimes. The Istanbul convention is unique in that it understands that states cannot be responsible for preventing violence against women and domestic violence on their own, and calls on countries to work together to tackle cross-border issues. It calls on all members of society to help reach the ultimate goal of a world free from all forms of violence against women and domestic violence. It recognises that women are disproportionately affected by sexual and domestic violence because of underlying gender inequalities, which are also compounded by abuse. The convention also places an emphasis on challenging the misogynistic attitudes that perpetuate gender inequality as a means of preventing violence and abuse.
Preventive measures are not the only important issue. Protecting victims and survivors and providing them with appropriate support are vital. States that ratify the Istanbul convention are required to ensure that accessible shelters exist in sufficient numbers and in adequate geographical distribution. Ratifying the Istanbul convention would put a duty on the Government to ensure that women’s refuges exist and provide important support at a time when women need it most. It also puts on a statutory footing the provision of rape crisis centres, 24-hour advice lines and access to useful information. The Council of Europe says:
“It should be borne in mind that it is not enough to set up protection structures and support services for victims. It is equally important to make sure victims are informed of their rights and know where and how to get help”.
It is an important consideration that anyone can be a victim of sexual violence or domestic abuse, regardless of economic background, age, ethnicity, religion or gender. However, we know that certain characteristics increase the risks: for example, poorer women and disabled women are at a greater risk of domestic abuse, while women from some ethnic minorities or cultural backgrounds are at greater risk of certain forms of gender-based violence.
One question that is asked frequently is, “What about the men?”. I would like to deal with this, because it was a point of contention in the other place. The convention itself explicitly addresses this issue in Article 4, where it makes it clear that its provisions apply to all persons, regardless of gender, and a whole range of other protected characteristics. However, the convention primarily focuses on women, and it is important that it does, because sexual violence and domestic abuse affect women to a hugely disproportionate extent, both in terms of prevalence and severity. In England and Wales in 2015, over 92% of the prosecutions brought for domestic abuse involved a male perpetrator and a female victim. Two women a week die at the hands of a partner or former partner. This does not mean that crimes committed by women against men, or by men against men, are less serious—they are serious—but to ignore the gendered dynamic of such types of crime would be wrong. One woman in four in the UK will experience sexual or domestic violence in her lifetime. The sheer scale of the problem demands that we take it more seriously.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its sixth report of the 2014-15 Session, entitled Violence Against Women and Girls, recommended that the UK Government ratify the Istanbul convention. It raised concerns at the time that the inter-ministerial group had insufficient powers, with witnesses to the committee criticising the group for not taking a holistic approach towards ending violence against women and girls because of the lack of representation from immigration officials. Asylum Aid recommended at the time that the Immigration Minister and UK Visas and Immigration should have representation on the group to ensure that the issues arising are dealt with effectively. I would appreciate it if the Minister said something on this today—or perhaps she could write to me later—as I would like to see these issues addressed.
On 24 November last year, I asked the Minister in your Lordships’ House why the Government had not yet ratified the Istanbul convention and when they intended to do so. The Minister said that the Government were committed to ratifying, but that in order to do so they would need to legislate to take extra-terrestrial jurisdiction over a wide range of offences.
Did I get that wrong? I thank noble Lords for correcting me, because that would have taken the jurisdiction a lot wider than I intended. As a result of that, I shall refer to extraterritorial jurisdiction as “ETJ” from now on; I think that will be a lot easier.
Perpetrators who are UK nationals or residents can evade prosecution by committing crimes as abhorrent as rape while abroad, and that should stop. There is precedent on ETJ: the Government already exercise such powers for similar offences committed against children overseas. They exercise ETJ in a range of other areas—for example, drugs offences, financial crime, terrorism and other forms of organised crime.
I was pleased to see that the Prime Minister has committed herself to overseeing a new Bill on domestic violence. I hope that such legislation will include the changes necessary to bring the UK into line with Article 44 of the Istanbul convention—that is, those relating to ETJ. Could the Minister outline the intention behind this new legislation and whether it will allow the Government to take ETJ over the necessary offences, ensuring that the UK is compliant with the convention and thereby paving the way for ratification?
There is a real need for action in the efforts to end violence against women. Two women are killed by their partners or former partners every week in England and Wales alone. In the past year, 1.2 million women were victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales. In the same timeframe, across the UK, 87,500 rapes and more than 400,000 sexual assaults were reported to police. It is well known that most cases of sexual assault and rape go unreported, so we must not underestimate the scale of the impact on women and children in our communities. There is clearly a need for action.
Ms Rashida Manjoo, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, has said:
“Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive human rights violation we face globally, whether in times of peace, conflict or post-conflict transition”.
It is so normalised that we hardly even notice how much we put up with. I was moved by some of the contributions from Members in the other place who spoke courageously of their own experiences. It affects us all. But violence against women is not natural and it is not inevitable.
I turn to the specifics of the Bill. Made up of three clauses, it requires the Secretary of State to report to both Houses on the steps being taken to enable the UK to ratify the convention. It requires the Government to come forward with a timetable by which they will ratify the convention. I was pleased with my meeting with the Minister this week, for which I thank her, to discuss the Bill in the run-up to this debate, and I welcome the Government’s support for the Bill.
Clause 1 requires that the Secretary of State lay a report in both Houses of Parliament setting out the steps necessary to ratify. This includes passing legislation through not only both Houses but the devolved Administrations of Scotland and Northern Ireland. I know the Government are committed to working with the existing devolved Administrations, and I welcome that commitment.
Clause 2 requires the Government to make an annual report to both Houses on the progress toward ratification no later than by 1 November in each year leading up to ratification. That report comes with a Government commitment to make an Oral Statement to Parliament, so that MPs and noble Lords can hold the Government to account on progress towards ratification. The convention itself commits the Government to thorough reporting requirements through annual reports to the Council of Europe’s expert group, GREVIO. It is important that parliamentarians have opportunities to scrutinise this report.
In Committee in the Commons, the Government committed to making an Oral Statement on their compliance with the convention post-ratification. I would be grateful if the Minister made a similar commitment so that these issues can be debated in your Lordships’ House, rather than a report merely being placed in our Library.
The Bill is short and simple but it has proved to be important, unlocking the logjam in Government departments. I hope it will lead to ratification at the earliest possible opportunity. While we in this place have the privilege to shape and develop legislation, we need to take cognisance of our responsibilities too. I have been heartened by the powerful civil society movement of women and men across the UK who have campaigned for the UK to ratify the convention.
The breadth of support from organisations and activists shows the strength of feeling on this issue. The IC Change campaign is one of the most inspiring campaigns. Run by volunteers, it helped to mobilise thousands of people the length and breadth of the country to engage with MPs in order to get the Bill through the other place. The women who led that campaign should be very proud. It is often the norm for civil society to be out in front on issues such as this. Women activists have campaigned, and Parliament has to try to keep up.
In the other place, the Bill was expertly stewarded by Dr Eilidh Whiteford, in the face of some adversity, but with overwhelming cross-party support, including from the government and opposition Front Benches. This Bill is important. It gives us the opportunity of oversight towards ratification, and a timetable—hopefully short—within which that can be achieved. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on bringing forward the Bill and introducing it so admirably and comprehensively. Yesterday afternoon when I inquired in the Whips’ Office how many were down to speak in this debate, I was somewhat surprised and really rather shocked to find that there were in fact only five—now there are six—and that they included not a single male Temporal Peer. So I put my name down, because heaven knows this is a worthy and indeed compelling cause that is deserving of support no less from men than from women.
We all know the appalling prevalence still today of violence towards women, both domestic and in wider society. I sat as a judge at various levels for 28 years and therefore came across perhaps more than my fair share of this violence, particularly in my earlier years as a High Court judge sitting at the Old Bailey and then around the country on circuit—murder, rapes and all those dreadful sorts of offences.
I have few boasts to my name by way of legal achievement, few jewels in my judicial crown, but I can and do boast of being the first judge in this jurisdiction, in I think 1990, to rule that a husband is not permitted in law to have intercourse with his wife quite simply whensoever he chooses—in short, that there is such an offence as marital rape. That decision was said at the time to fly in the face of centuries of established legal principle but in fact, happily, it was upheld by both the Court of Appeal and indeed the Appeal Committee in your Lordships’ House.
Reading the excellent Dr Whiteford’s speech towards the end of the debate in the other place on Third Reading, I was struck by this passage, which, if your Lordships will allow me, I will quote:
“On reflection, it strikes me powerfully that Parliament has frequently been left playing catch-up on progress for women: from those who campaign for women’s suffrage for more than a century before it was achieved to those trade unionists fought for equal pay for women years before the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force and the women who, in the 1970s, set up refuges for women fleeing domestic abuse at a time when there was absolutely no support from the state or the authorities for women experiencing violence or coercive control from an intimate partner—a time when rape within marriage was not even a crime. Every step of the way, it is citizens who have driven progressive change. Sisters have had to do it for themselves”. —[Official Report, Commons, 24/2/17; col. 1334.]
I thought it was time for a brother to enter the fray.
Of course I recognise, as Mr Nuttall and Mr Davies were at pains to emphasise in the debate in the other place, that there is all too much violence in society and in certain domestic contexts against men and boys too. The Istanbul convention and the Bill on their face appear to do nothing for them. But there can be no doubt, as the noble Baroness made plain in opening the debate, that it is women who suffer disproportionately. They suffer most from the hands of the opposite sex. There is absolutely no basis to suggest that advancing their cause, as the Bill proposes, will set back the cause of male victims. Quite the reverse: anything that raises the stakes, that raises the public’s awareness of and revulsion at violence generally in society, will redound to the advantage of all victims.
Of course I recognise that the Bill—and the Istanbul convention—does little of itself to alter the substantive law under which we seek to deter and control violence against women. To say it does nothing is something of an exaggeration: the convention requires that we broaden our extraterritorial jurisdiction so as to promote international co-operation in combating violence against women. That, indeed, is why the Bill was amended in the Commons: to recognise the need for some small further delay beyond even the years since we initially signed the convention. The delay is to identify precisely and then to satisfy that requirement for extraterritorial jurisdiction.
As Mr Nuttall himself said in the other place:
“The purpose is to try to tie down the Government to doing something and to stop this matter from drifting on”. —[Official Report, Commons, 24/2/17; col. 1337.]
As has already been noted, the other place voted to pass the Bill by 138 votes to 1. Your Lordships will readily agree that it would be nothing short of disgraceful and deeply damaging to the reputation of this House if we do not now ensure that it secures safe and speedy passage at all stages through our House. I therefore wish it God’s speed to secure its early passage if not in this Session, certainly in the next.
We on these Benches also give our wholehearted support to the Bill. I have been following this issue for some while—indeed, I have participated in previous debate and tabled some Questions. I congratulate Dr Eilidh Whiteford in the other place and the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on the hard work that they and others have done in getting the Bill so far, and the many agencies involved in getting it to us today, including IC Change.
In the face of a number of cutbacks and closures of women’s services and refuges, we need a step change. Surely we should be giving a lead in this vital area. Violence against women—indeed, any violence—is a tragic evil: tragic because its effects can be so devastating, long lasting and widespread; and evil, not simply because it is violence, but because it is a violence which seeks to deny a fundamental human dignity, which I believe comes from being created in the image of God, given to all human beings. Whatever form that violence comes in—whether that be rape, forced marriage, psychological or political abuse—gender-based violence against women invariably attempts to reduce them to passive objects. It seeks to deny them the status of personhood.
As a safe place of counsel within every local community, the Church often finds itself on the front line, listening to the stories of women who have faced violence and do not know where else to turn. It is one of the greatest and hardest privileges of priesthood to listen to a woman telling her story of abuse. Indeed, sometimes it is a man, although it has rightly been pointed out that this is overwhelmingly an issue for women. We must not underplay that. Of course we want to make sure that men are given protection, but this must not distract us from this important Bill. We hear someone telling their story of abuse, sometimes tentatively for the very first time, sometimes only just beginning to realise that actually, for all sorts of social and familial reasons, they have colluded with it and are only now beginning to realise that it is simply wrong, and we then need to help them find the right sort of support, which is profoundly difficult, particularly in rural communities. I pay tribute to the many organisations working with churches and helping us up and down the country to respond to violence against women, those churches offering premises or funding for refuges and, in particular, the Christian charity Restored, whose work in training dioceses and clergy is invaluable.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, has already rehearsed some of the statistics, and I shall not repeat them, although I note how horrific they are when one pauses to look at what is still going on. I am also aware that there are other areas here which have not been picked up. In the past, I have tabled Questions about, for example, how many young women under the age of marriage in this country are being taken abroad, married and coming back to this country. It turned out that we have no idea how many such young women are coming back having been married under laws overseas—sometimes possibly polygamously; we simply do not know. A number of areas here are causing great concern.
In recent years, the Government have made substantial progress on legislating against gender-based violence, and I pay particular tribute to our Prime Minister, who I think all sides of the House will agree has worked tirelessly in both her current capacity and as Home Secretary to address many key legislative areas—legislation to combat forced marriage, female genital mutilation, modern slavery, coercive and controlling behaviour and stalking. The UK has one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world. The Prime Minister’s work as Home Secretary to improve police reporting of and response to domestic abuse is also to be commended—indeed, celebrated.
However, in that context, it is regrettable that the Bill is required, given Her Majesty’s Government’s repeatedly stated commitment to ratifying the convention. In answer to a series of Written Questions back in 2014, after the convention had come into force, the Government informed me:
“Justice Ministers are currently considering the extent to which we need to amend the criminal law of England and Wales for compliance with Article 44 prior to ratification of the Convention”.—[Official Report, 27/11/14; col WA 3233.]
Yet, three years later, it seems as though Justice Ministers are still “considering”. That delay in ratification is, ultimately, a failure in political will. If we were being charitable to Her Majesty’s Government, we could say that there have been one or two political distractions over the past year. However, I hope that the new reporting requirements contained in the Bill will encourage Her Majesty’s Government to throw their weight unreservedly behind the legislative changes required for ratification—particularly the issue of extraterritorial jurisdiction.
Not only will ratification of the Istanbul convention bolster the domestic framework for combating violence against women, acting as a tool by which civil society can hold the Government to account on the provision of resources to combat gender-based violence, but our ratification of the convention also has an international dimension. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights put it,
“the delay in ratifying the Istanbul Convention could harm the UK’s international reputation as a world leader in combating violence against women and girls”.
Ratification of the convention would be the clearest signal of our commitment to ending the injustice of gender-based violence. It would commit us to sharing best practice internationally, and it would strengthen the Istanbul convention itself as a marker by which other countries might be held to account.
I sincerely hope that Her Majesty’s Government give this Bill a swift passage through your Lordships’ House, and that they follow the passage of the Bill with an equally swift timetable for ratification of the Istanbul convention.
My Lords, I welcome today’s Second Reading and congratulate Dr Whiteford and her colleagues in the other place, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for their persistence in getting us to this point. This pernicious abuse of women’s rights and human rights continues to plague our society. It is almost regarded as normalised behaviour in many households. Needless to say, it transcends all communities; shockingly, many women seem not to know still that it is against the law.
An internationally recognised provision would lend significant armoury to the many women human rights defenders, as well as instructing in no uncertain terms still largely male-led institutions that eradication of violence against women is as important a priority as providing education, health and housing. They would not be able to hide behind austerity measures and make women’s refuges and other services their first collateral.
We should take pride in the UK in having secured some of the best policies and practices on domestic violence, including the introduction of new domestic abuse offences, protection orders and criminalising forced marriage—with which I do not agree, but it appears to be doing its job. Then there are the more vigorous laws on female genital mutilation. But we need to go further in providing absolute protection to those facing violence and seek to eliminate violence against women.
We have tolerated consecutive generations of violence plaguing women’s lives, with two women facing death each week. There are 1.2 million women victims, and more than 87,000 rapes are reported on top of 400,000 sexual assaults. God alone knows how many women are still not able to report these incidents. In addition, 11,900 children were raped last year. Twenty-nine per cent of all those statistics are from the BME communities. So despite all the progress of women’s emancipation, our daughters and granddaughters are still facing an insurmountable level of barbaric violence in our society, and we have to do everything we can to ensure that it does not continue.
The UK’s role in shaping the Istanbul convention was significant, so I do not understand how five years have since passed and we have not chosen to ratify it. I am glad to have arrived at this point, whereby government is prepared to work towards compliance. Ratification would indicate a powerful step towards empowerment of women and is certain to afford greater protection of women and girls suffering violence, as well as pushing for a more comprehensive response to addressing violence and giving victims and survivors rightful access to all the necessary specialist services. Ratifying the convention adds another layer of protection, enables local and international agencies to respond more comprehensively and offers parliamentarians a further instrument of accountability. Ratification would assist in harmonisation of laws and assist government and state agencies to respond within a comprehensive framework and set of policies which not only provide enhanced protection but also seek to empower women. Why would we not do it without any hesitation?
On the extraterritorial requirement, I was involved in the dowry inquiry led by Mr Virendra Sharma in the other place last year. A huge number of British citizens complained either that their marriages were not legally recognised in this country and that when they faced violence they had no recourse to law, or that the laws under which they were married in one country were not recognised in this country. That level of harmonisation would, I hope, be an integral part of this.
We have laws and are continuously improving on their implementation. The Istanbul convention can be another layer of safety. We are a signatory, and now need to show that we are serious about eradication of violence by ratifying it. I believe that, by ratification, we would demonstrate our total commitment to all men and women that violence in all its forms is not tolerable in our society today. Ratification embodies a cohesive and integrated approach, not only protecting women with laws but mandating institutions to provide the necessary services, so that women and girls can live free of fear of violence.
Finally, I am confident our ambition is safe in the hands of our current Prime Minister, and the Minister here, who has done much to advance the previous progresses made on this issue. But can the Minister say what the implication of the Brexit negotiation will be on the reporting requirement or signing up to the ratification?
My Lords, I, too, thank Dr Whiteford, and I am sure that the noble Baroness did not mean to suggest that Scotland and Northern Ireland are not integral parts of the United Kingdom.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, has rightly reminded us that this is a people’s issue, not just a women’s issue; his crown is highly polished, and very bejewelled. I declare an interest as I was a member of the board and chair of the domestic violence charity Refuge. That was many years ago, but I still declare the interest because that experience was very vivid. Very recently, within the last few days, I have agreed to become a member of an advisory group for the organisation Voice 4 Victims.
It struck me that this debate might almost have been wrapped up with yesterday’s debate for International Women’s Day, on the UK’s role in promoting gender equality. Because of the importance of the exercise of the UK’s role, it would be very significant if the UK ratified the convention—or, I should say, it will be significant when it does.
Reports on violence against women often have a section headed something like, “What is violence against women and girls?”. Sadly, there are many women and girls who could testify. This week, a survey of laws in 73 countries found that there are bad laws underpinning what was described as a global “epidemic of sexual violence”. The aims of the convention—prevention, protection, prosecution and integrating policies—are so sensible as hardly to need any description. However, there have been only 10 ratifications so far.
I joined the board of Refuge on the day I was asked to come to your Lordships’ House 25 years ago. Attitudes in the UK have changed, but not as much as one might expect in a generation. They have often changed among senior people who have to deal with the issue—the police are one example—but less so in lower ranks. Some of us were privileged to hear DCC Louisa Rolfe from West Midlands Police talk about coercive control at a recent all-party group meeting. Her understanding and description were very impressive indeed. As I said, there have not been the changes one might expect in a generation. The importance of the issue is enormous, yet there is a lack of belief and understanding.
I compliment the noble Baroness on raising the issue of people’s attitudes. I declare an interest: as a local councillor in Preston in the early 1970s, I was part of a group trying to establish refuge provision. I was invited to speak to senior members of Chorley Council. The then leader of that council finished the meeting by saying that he was absolutely appalled that men in Preston behaved like that—of course, they did not in Chorley. Another councillor came to speak to me and said that her son-in-law was a barrister and her daughter had complained of being a victim. The daughter’s father would not believe that a barrister could behave like that. Today’s debate demonstrates the wide range of backgrounds and areas that people come from.
My Lords, I am grateful for that intervention. I was about to say that one often hears, “It does not happen here”. The lack of understanding that what is happening is a crime is, sadly, shared among those who experience that crime.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which in 2015 undertook an inquiry to examine progress towards ratification. The noble Baroness referred to that. Its report told your Lordships that,
“the Convention would have a strong indirect effect on the UK legal system”,
firstly in that it,
“could be cited by the UK courts as persuasive authority”,
and secondly through the role of the European Court of Human Rights, given that the Government are bound by its judgment and, therefore,
“the terms of the Convention could have a strong indirect effect on the UK legal system”.
The report also commented on some of the evidence that the committee had obtained. Witnesses had told the committee that ratification would,
“help the UK’s position internationally in tackling violence against women and girls and would encourage other countries to follow suit”.
The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales said that ratification would emphasise the state’s positive duty and it would,
“provide a further basis in law for those who wish to persuade the state to provide adequate and meaningful resources to construct an effective mechanism to protect women from gender violence and harm”.
That raises the question of whether there is a resource issue behind this which may not have been acknowledged in the same way as the concerns about the devolved institutions. I hope that the Minister will assure us that there is no resource component precluding ratification. The evidence from the Minister to the Committee referred to ratification being a matter for the devolved Administrations. Let us not seek to avoid any responsibility ourselves in that area. The Government’s response to the JCHR’s report emphasised their commitment to the convention but referred again to the devolved Administrations.
We have heard about the international context but, as we have also heard, this is not just a third-world issue. Real commitment would put all the mechanisms in place. It would be a considerable achievement of Her Majesty’s Government both to be able to ratify the convention and actually to ratify it. It would be a solid expression of our commitment to preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It would put the country’s legislation where its mouth is. According to the JCHR, the UK is in a good position to ratify. The then Home Secretary showed her personal commitment and only a single legislative change is required.
Last year, the JCHR visited Strasbourg. I recall a member of the Council of Europe strongly emphasising the importance of the UK’s example. The context was different—we were talking about compliance with the judgment of the court on a different issue—but the message was the same: the example set by a country which is respected and whose respect needs to be maintained. We support the Bill from these Benches.
My Lords, it is a pleasure and a privilege to make a brief response from the Opposition Front Bench. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Gale on bringing forward the Bill and on her excellent opening speech, which made a case so compelling that I challenge the Minister to resist it in any way at all. I also congratulate my noble friend on a political lifetime of campaigning for women and girls. She is an inspiration to so many of us on these Benches.
It has also been a delight to hear speeches from almost all around the House, particularly from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, who has made such an important contribution to the legal position of women with his ground-breaking ruling. I commend him for turning out on a Friday, at the end of a long week, to speak up not just for his Benches but for men who support this. It has been a pleasure to hear speeches from the Liberal Democrat and Bishops’ Benches. I look forward to the Conservative Benches being just as encouraging when the Minister speaks.
Not only do I support the Bill but, I am pleased to say, it has the full support of the Official Opposition. The Labour Party has confirmed that in government we would ratify the Istanbul convention. The elimination of violence against women and girls should be a priority in any society. We are completely committed to ensuring that women and girls can live safe and secure lives wherever they live and whatever they choose to do. As my honourable friend Sarah Champion said in another place:
“Ending violence against women and girls requires a radical, seismic, societal shift in power and attitudes”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/16; col. 1113.]
This Bill may be a small contribution but it is a very important one and shows the role our Parliament can play in tackling that challenge.
We heard a catalogue of appalling violence from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. I do not need to rehearse that but, as my noble friend Lady Gale said, we need to understand that this kind of violence perpetrated against women and girls is gendered violence. It is not an accident that such a disproportionate amount of it is directed against women and girls. The context in which that happens is global inequality—an inequality of power and access to the levers of power. We need to understand that there is a connection with that even in our own society. We have a female Prime Minister but there are only seven other women in the Cabinet and only 29% of MPs are women. We saw recently the celebrations following the by-election just before Christmas. The result of that by-election meant that, throughout our history, as many women had been elected to the other place as there were men sitting there on that day. In this House, only 26% of us are women.
Therefore, we are making real progress. However, the reality is that the context of this issue here and elsewhere around the world means that we have to take particular steps to address the challenges faced by women and girls. That is the context for this Bill. It is that which makes the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence—the Istanbul convention—so important. As my noble friend Lady Gale said, it is a unique, ground-breaking piece of legislation which offers an international framework for tackling violence against women and girls.
We heard in the other place that the Government are committed to ratification of the Istanbul convention, which is very welcome. Therefore, I hope that they will give the Bill a fair wind and provide a timetable for ratification. I hope they will also tell the House what legislative changes will be needed to ratify it. I look forward to hearing about the ETJ raised by my noble friend Lady Gale. As the Bill will cut across devolved and reserved powers, can the Minister tell the House what discussions the Government have had with the devolved Administrations about implementing this?
This short Bill provides us with the steps that we need to take a key move forward in the battle to eliminate violence against women and girls. I hope very much that the House and the Government give it wholehearted support.
My Lords, first, I wish to take a moment to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for taking this Bill through the House and for the very constructive conversation that we had this week about it. I single out for special praise the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. It is always nice to hear men contribute to a debate that is mainly about women. I say at this juncture that the Government have given their full backing to the Bill and we wholly support its aim of ensuring that we deliver on our commitment to ratify the Istanbul convention.
We all recognise that violence is still far too prevalent in our society today, and that women still face a much higher risk of gender-based violence than men. Physical, sexual and domestic abuse affect women disproportionately: that is the stark reality, I am afraid. We also know that many of these crimes remain unreported—we talked about that at Question Time yesterday or the day before—leaving victims to suffer in silence and perpetrators escaping justice.
Our commitment to ratifying the Istanbul convention shows not only how seriously this Government are taking their responsibility to ensure that all victims are supported and that perpetrators are brought to justice but also our ongoing commitment to strengthening international co-operation in this field, which is vital.
This Government have put prevention at the heart of our approach. We have significantly strengthened the law since we first published our first call to end violence against women and girls—VAWG—strategy in 2010, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans pointed out. We have criminalised forced marriage and breach of a forced marriage protection order in England and Wales. The right reverend Prelate made an interesting point about forced marriage and girls being taken out of the UK for this reason. The joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office Forced Marriage Unit provides support and advice to victims, those at risk and professionals. The FMU’s most recent statistics were published yesterday and show that in 2016 advice or support was provided in 1,428 cases; 371 of those, or 26%, involved under-18s. The unit handled cases relating to 60—
I am sorry to break in but I think I made a slightly different point. However, I am very grateful to have those statistics and will ask for them each year. I think the point is that we have no proactive way of working out why, for example, people are going through immigration and seeing whether there is any way that we can find out more information about that. It is simply an unknown problem. That was what I was trying to push the Government on. Can the Minister comment briefly on that?
I am very happy to comment on that. The right reverend Prelate makes a very good point about how we should be proactive about these things as opposed to being reactive. One of the things on which we have taken significant steps over the last few months and years concerns our intelligence at the border and training border staff to look for possible cases of people trafficking or forced marriage. There is a whole host of things that immigration staff are looking out for to prevent some of these things happening. I am glad that the right reverend Prelate brought up that issue. In addition to that, we have fast-tracked female genital mutilation protection orders and have introduced a new mandatory reporting duty for FGM.
We have strengthened legislation on stalking, creating two new offences, and have commissioned training to improve the understanding of stalking among those who come into contact with victims. We will also introduce a new stalking protection order with criminal sanctions to help protect victims at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Rape Action Plan launched in 2014 and led by the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Policing Lead for Rape is aiding the Government’s drive to ensure that every report of rape is treated seriously and every victim is given the help that they deserve. We have protected funding for rape support services at current levels in 2016-17, providing independent, specialist support to female victims of both recent and historic sexual violence. We have also strengthened the law on domestic violence with a new offence of domestic abuse that covers controlling and coercive behaviour. Again, this was another thing we touched on at Question Time on Wednesday. The new offence protects victims who would otherwise be subjected to sustained patterns of abuse that can lead to total control of their lives by the perpetrator. Some victims do not even know that this is happening to them, as we also discussed.
The new domestic violence protection orders and the domestic violence disclosure scheme have also been rolled out across England and Wales. This is all alongside the Government’s work to continue reforming front-line agencies’ response to VAWG. It is vital that victims have the confidence to report these crimes, knowing that they will get the support they need and that everything will be done to bring offenders to justice.
The UK continues to be a global leader in its efforts to tackle VAWG and our reforms to domestic law support a stronger international framework. The Istanbul convention highlights the need for more effective international and regional co-operation. While there is no one-size-fits-all model in our approach, the measures in the convention will ensure that more robust action is taken through legally binding and harmonised standards.
In most respects, the measures already in place in the UK to protect women and girls from violence comply with, or go further than, the convention requires. However, before we ratify the convention, we must ensure that we are fully compliant with it. There is one outstanding issue regarding introducing extraterritorial jurisdiction—or even extra-terrestrial jurisdiction—which needs to be addressed before we are considered compliant. We already have ETJ over some of the offences covered by the convention, including the common-law offence of murder, sexual offences against children, forced marriage and FGM. However, there are a number of offences, including rape of an over-18, sexual assault and domestic abuse, where it still does not apply. Further amendments to domestic law are necessary so that we fully comply with the requirements in Article 44 of the convention. That will require the introduction of primary legislation in England and Wales, as well as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We are working closely with ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to progress this issue and, as the Prime Minister signalled, we will explore all options for bringing the necessary legislation forward.
I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who asked about the devolved Administrations. We are in regular contact with them about the Bill and the Istanbul convention, and the Minister for Vulnerability, Safeguarding and Countering Extremism has written to her counterparts on the matter.
The Bill places a duty on the Government to lay a report before Parliament as soon as is reasonably practicable after the Bill comes into force, setting out the steps to be taken to enable the UK to ratify the convention, as well as the timescale within which ratification is expected. It also requires the Government to lay an annual report before Parliament on progress toward ratification. I recognise that noble Lords want reassurance that we will continue to update Parliament on our ongoing compliance with the convention post-ratification.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, asked about Brexit, but we are talking about a Council of Europe treaty that is independent of European Union functions and processes, so Brexit will not affect the UK ratifying the Istanbul convention. Once the UK has ratified it, we will be required to submit regular reports to the Council of Europe on compliance. Those reports will provide detailed information on the measures to tackle VAWG, the role of civil society organisations in addressing these crimes, and on prosecutions and convictions. We will ensure that both Houses have sight of those reports.
The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence—known as GREVIO—which is the independent expert body responsible for monitoring implementation of the convention, will scrutinise the reports and prepare its own report with recommendations. That report will also be available for parliamentary and public scrutiny. As I have said, the Government are very pleased to continue supporting the Bill and its aim of ensuring that we formally demonstrate to Parliament our progress on delivering against our commitment to ratify the convention.
We have made progress in tackling VAWG, but we are not complacent. We know that there is more to do to ensure that the victims of terrible crimes get the support they need. Our cross-government VAWG strategy, published last March, sets out our ambition that by the end of this Parliament no victim of abuse will be turned away from the necessary support. The strategy is underpinned by increased funding of £80 million, which includes the Home Office’s £15 million, three-year violence against women and girls service transformation fund to aid, promote and embed the best local practice and ensure that early intervention and prevention become the norm. An additional £20 million for victims of domestic abuse was announced in the Chancellor’s spring statement.
This funding will help to deliver our goal of working with local commissioners to deliver a secure future for rape support centres, refuges and FGM and forced marriage units, while driving major change across all services so that early intervention and prevention is the norm. Furthermore, to ensure that all victims get the right support at the right time, we have set out a clear blueprint for local action through a new national statement of expectations. That sets out what local areas need to do to prevent offending and to support victims and it will encourage organisations to work with local commissioners to disseminate the NSE and support the implementation of best practice.
We have also recently announced some key measures that will further strengthen the response to VAWG. A major new programme of work on domestic abuse has been announced by the Prime Minister. That cross-governmental work is being co-ordinated by the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary and will look at legislative and non-legislative options to improve support for victims. The measures that come from that will encourage victims to report their abusers and see them brought to justice, and further raise public awareness.
We also recently announced that relationship and sex education will be put on a statutory footing so that every child has access to age-appropriate provision in a consistent way. The Department for Education will consult on making PSHE statutory.
We must continue to challenge the many forms of discrimination that women still face and ensure that we make VAWG everyone’s business. We all have our part to play in protecting women and girls from violence, and I feel—and very much hope—that noble Lords will join me in supporting the Bill.
My Lords, I thank all noble Members of the House who have taken part. I especially thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for his contribution and all the wonderful work he has done in this field. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for speaking about his experiences of listening to women who have suffered domestic violence and for bringing that to the House. I mention the two male Peers who spoke because we need women and men to take part—this issue is not just for women, as other noble Lords have pointed out.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, for her support and for talking about her experience in this field. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her work on the Joint Committee on Human Rights and for speaking about how that committee wants the Istanbul convention to be ratified. I was interested in the intervention by my noble friend Lady Farrington, who said that some people think that such behaviour does not happen in their area. We know that it happens everywhere, in every county in England, Wales and Scotland—and in the whole world, actually. No country is free from it, which is why it is really important to take action.
I thank my noble friend Lady Sherlock for the Opposition’s support. There is support for the Bill right across the House—I thank the Minister for her support, too—and I am sure that working together with other Members, we will get it through. I look forward to working with the Minister and I am sure that in getting the Bill through your Lordships’ House, she will keep my feet firmly on the ground and make sure that it does not end up in outer space.
I know we will get compliance because the Government seem determined to do that. I thank everyone again, including the Minister for her co-operation, and I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.