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Domestic Abuse

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat a Statement given in the other place by my honourable friend the crime and safeguarding Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“The home should be a place of safety and love. For 2 million people, it is not. Domestic abuse takes place behind closed doors, turning people’s homes into places of fear, abuse and violence. We recognise the importance of building trust with victims to tackle this hidden crime; for too long they have felt scared or unable to come forward.

So, Mr Speaker, I am very pleased to be able to announce today that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are introducing the Domestic Abuse Bill to the House. Led jointly by my honourable friend the Member for Charnwood and myself, we are also publishing our response to the pre-legislative scrutiny report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill.

Domestic abuse is complex and multifaceted. In addition to physical violence, it can include emotional, psychological, sexual and economic abuse, and at its heart is often controlling or coercive behaviour. We were the first Parliament in the world to recognise this when we brought in the controlling or coercive behaviour offence in 2015. But our understanding of domestic abuse continues to grow and evolve, and this Bill gives us an opportunity to ensure that our legislation keeps pace.

Each year in this country, scores of people—mainly women—are murdered by their partners. Domestic abuse of all kinds destroys the lives of thousands more, including male and LGBT+ victims. Each and every day, those working on the front line of our public services see the extent of the damage it causes and the demands it places on those who are there to help. So, I would like to take a moment to thank those who work tirelessly to prevent abuse, protect its victims and bring perpetrators to justice, in particular for their support in the consultation process on this legislation.

But there is more to be done. In January this year, we issued a Written Ministerial Statement setting out our commitment to transforming the response to domestic abuse. In that Statement we announced the publication of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, as well as the publication of the response to the Government’s domestic abuse consultation undertaken last year. We also published a set of non-legislative measures because we recognise that although the Bill is vital, so too is our practical day-to-day response.

Together, the Bill, the consultation response and the non-legislative measures set out an ambitious programme of cross-government action that puts victims at the heart of our response in a co-ordinated effort to tackle domestic abuse. That includes setting out our intentions to address perpetrators’ behaviour and to break the cycle of abuse through perpetrator programmes, domestic abuse prevention orders, and even piloting polygraph testing to ensure compliance with programmes.

The Bill was published in draft to allow for pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of MPs and Peers, chaired by my right honourable friend the Member for Basingstoke. The committee published its report on 14 June. The Government are grateful to all parliamentarians on the committee for their detailed scrutiny of the draft Bill and to all those who provided evidence to the committee. They have my own personal thanks and the thanks of all Ministers involved as well.

We have considered the committee’s report carefully and have accepted many of the recommendations, either in part or in full. We have committed to giving other recommendations full consideration over the next few months, with the aim of publishing a further response to the report later in the year. Where appropriate, we will bring forward amendments to the Bill to address these recommendations. This includes our work on refuge services. Subject to the outcome of the consultation under way at the moment, we will bring forward amendments to implement the Government’s proposals to improve support to victims and their children in accommodation-based domestic abuse services in England. I ask all honourable Members to respond, and to encourage their network of people to respond, to that consultation by 2 August.

During the development of the Bill, honourable Members have raised the issue of migrant women who are victims of domestic abuse. My right honourable friend the Minister for Immigration will today publish an updated asylum support policy on domestic abuse. The Home Office is using the asylum support budget to close a gap which, until now, has prevented asylum seekers and their dependants accessing specialist domestic abuse help and refuge places because they are not entitled to housing benefit.

Further, we have listened to charities and victims who say that people feel trapped in abusive relationships by their immigration status. This is not acceptable and that is why we are committing to reviewing the response to all migrant victims of abuse as recommended by the Joint Committee.

We have also listened to victims about their journeys through the legal system. The Bill prohibits perpetrators from continuing their reign of abuse through cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts and it gives victims automatic eligibility for special measures in the criminal courts. We want to recognise the devastating impact that domestic abuse can have on children and young people. Among the measures that achieve this is the requirement that the statutory guidance must recognise that adverse effect.

We also want to meet our international obligations. The Bill includes the necessary provisions for all parts of the United Kingdom to meet the requirements of the Istanbul convention in respect of the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the criminal courts. The Government wholeheartedly agree with the Joint Committee that the victims of domestic abuse in all parts of the United Kingdom deserve effective protection and support. There has been a controlling or coercive behaviour offence in England and Wales since 2015, and the Scottish Government legislated for such an offence last year. Northern Ireland, however, has no such legislation in place. We are therefore pleased to inform the House that, following a consultation undertaken in 2016, before the collapse of the Assembly, the Bill as introduced will include a bespoke domestic abuse offence for Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to all honourable Members who represent Northern Ireland and take their seats in this place for their support on this measure.

Before I sit down, I pay tribute to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. She has worked tirelessly over many years, as a Member of this House, as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister, to ensure that the vulnerable are heard and protected and perpetrators are bought to justice. Her determination and dedication to helping the 2 million victims of domestic abuse shine through this Bill. We remain determined to do all we can to eradicate domestic abuse. Through this landmark Bill and our wider non-legislative programme we will transform our response to this appalling crime and end the suffering that abuse causes. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place earlier today, and for our meeting yesterday when she gave notice of the Statement. I take this opportunity to thank all those who sat on the scrutiny committee of the draft Bill for their time and commitment and for the comprehensive report and recommendations they produced. As the Minister said, the Bill has not yet been finalised, but we welcome some of those areas we know will be included. We hope that it will begin to transform the way we deal with domestic abuse in the future.

While we agree that the establishment of a domestic abuse commissioner is key, we will seek assurances around the authority and the funding they will be given. Can the Minister give an indication of the role and the independence of the commissioner? We very much welcome improvements in proceedings in family courts, which include prohibiting cross-examination of victims, but we want assurances that in the case of custody and access to children, all victims will be treated equally and courts will look at cases individually. I am pleased to see that controlling and coercive behaviour will be included in the definition of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland. This change across the rest of the UK has been instrumental in changing the outcomes for many victims, and we are very pleased to see that this will be extended to Northern Ireland.

We are aware that the Government are committed to helping migrant victims of domestic abuse, and we welcome their intention to review this. We must ensure that such women are eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain, irrespective of the type of visa they are residing under, and that they will have access to public funds. It is my understanding that although the Bill will not be gender-specific, as has been called for by some in the sector, commissioning services will be, which is welcome and a step towards ensuring that all victims of domestic abuse receive parity in the provision of support services.

We also believe that the Bill will need to be strengthened in terms of the impact of domestic abuse on children, both as victims and as witnesses. Not focusing enough on the impact this will have will also have a knock-on effect on the specialist support made available to them. Can the Minister say what plans there are to strengthen this area of the Bill to ensure that services for child victims are widely available, robust and adequately funded?

We all know that there have been cuts to the funding of women’s refuges in recent years, meaning that they have had to close; women are being forced to stay in abusive relationships because they have nowhere else to go. I am pleased to know about the ongoing consultation on the funding stream, as the Minister mentioned, which ends on 2 August.

It is good to see that the Government are committed to bringing forward amendments to implement their proposals to improve support for victims and their children in women’s refuges in England. I am aware that the women who run these refuges are looking forward to these proposals and welcome them very much.

Assurance from the Government is needed so that this Bill will ensure that funding is available to enable women to leave their family home and have a safe alternative for themselves and their children. The Minister mentioned that the Bill included the necessary provisions for all parts of the United Kingdom to meet the requirement of the Istanbul convention. I am very pleased to hear that commitment. Will the Minister confirm that the ratification will take place as soon as possible after the Bill completes all its stages and becomes an Act of Parliament?

This Bill was a commitment made by the outgoing Prime Minister in her final Queen’s Speech just over two years ago. While this has arrived very late in her leadership and without time for her to see it through, I am pleased that she has finally set things in motion for this long overdue and much-needed legislation. Can the Minister give an assurance that whoever becomes Prime Minister next week will have the same commitment to this Bill and will guarantee that it will be robust and that funding will be available to fulfil everything it promises?

Can the Minister give an indication of when the Bill will arrive in your Lordships’ House? It is our intention to work with the Government and the sector to take this Bill into legislation. No doubt there will be challenges, but hopefully we can have a sensible debate, negotiation and compromise. We will help to form a lasting piece of legislation that will benefit all victims of domestic abuse. This Bill is a great opportunity for the Government and for all parliamentarians to transform the domestic abuse agenda. It is our duty to ensure that we all get this right. Between us, I am sure that that is possible.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I welcome this Statement and thank the Government for early sight of it. I have had the privilege of sitting on the pre-legislative scrutiny committee on the draft Bill and fervently hope that we will eventually find all its recommendations—with the possible exception of polygraph testing—on the face of the Bill.

Domestic abuse is indeed a scourge on our society. I wish that speedier progress had been made since this Bill was first announced in 2017. I understand that our Prime Minister, who I know is passionate about these issues, now wants to speed things up to ensure that this Bill forms one of the key achievements of her legacy—and rightly so. In the Statement, the Minister talks of “further response” to other proposals later in the year. So, like the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, I would like to know the timescale for this Bill. When can we hope to see it on the statute book?

I particularly welcome the Minister’s comments on migrant victims and look forward to reading the Government’s updated asylum support policy. Might this find its way into the Bill? It is hugely important that asylum-seeking women and those whose immigration status is uncertain are not scared away from reporting abuse, and that not having recourse to public funds will not make them stay in a violent, abusive situation. I hope that the Government will accept the recommendation that there should be a firewall between reporting the crime, accessing report services and immigration control. Everyone deserves justice, no matter what their immigration status.

British citizens living in Northern Ireland are entitled to justice and protection too, so I am delighted at the Minister’s announcement that there will be a bespoke domestic abuse offence for Northern Ireland. On the committee, we recommended a sunset clause, so the full Bill should apply in Northern Ireland until the Assembly brings in one of its own. So it will be interesting to see what the bespoke offence will contain. If the Minister can enlighten the House further this afternoon, that would be very helpful.

I also welcome measures to tackle perpetrators’ behaviour, but measures also need investment in a wider range of perpetrator programmes, backed by the resources to carry them out. I am glad that the Government have acknowledged that children and young people who witness abuse are victims, too, and I hope that they will be afforded the same priority for accommodation, health and education services as our looked-after children. There is no word, however, on the recommendation on a gendered definition of abuse and the inclusion of other categories of victim, including disabled people, people abused by their so-called carers, and victims of FGM, forced marriage, modern slavery and so on.

We also recommended that the domestic abuse commissioner should have stronger powers and report to the Cabinet, not the Home Office. These and many other issues will become apparent as we progress through the stages of the Bill.

I end by welcoming wholeheartedly the great progress that has been made so far. The Statement asserts that the measures now allow for the Istanbul convention to be ratified. That will be a great day for human rights in Britain.

I thank both noble Baronesses for their comments and their broad support for what we are about to embark on. I particularly commend the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, on the part she played in the whole pre-legislative scrutiny process, which was collaborative and helpful for all involved.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked me first about the domestic abuse commissioner and their independence. I confirm that the whole point of the domestic abuse commissioner is that she or he holds to account not only government but local government and other stakeholders who are involved in the protection of women. We expect that person to be in post in the autumn, and an announcement will be made very soon. We absolutely agree that their role will be crucial, and we have amended the Bill to create a new statutory framework document that will set out how the Home Secretary will work with the commissioner and will cover their accountability to Parliament. However, their independence is absolutely crucial in this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, also asked me about the courts system. The Bill will include the fact that perpetrators cannot cross-question their victim in court. However, there is another point that the noble Baroness alluded to. It is about practice direction 12J, where child contact cases are involved and domestic abuse is a factor. The panel will soon call for evidence on this. So the noble Baroness made an important point.

Both noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Burt, talked about migrant women and the gendered nature of domestic abuse. On migrant women, it is important that we make very clear that all victims of domestic abuse should be treated, first and foremost, as victims of domestic abuse. That is why all the measures in the Bill apply equally to all victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales, irrespective of their immigration status. We recognise that there are migrant victims who are not covered by the existing destitute domestic violence concession, so we will undertake a review of the overall response to migrant victims of domestic abuse. The review will specifically consider the committee’s recommendation to extend the period for which support is offered and how it relates to a victim’s ability to access refuge accommodation and will take into account any obligations we may have under the Istanbul convention.

The third point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, was about victims being worried about their immigration status and the firewall. Victims should be treated first and foremost as victims and not be concerned about this being abused as a route to test their immigration status, but we do not want to introduce a firewall that might prove detrimental to other vulnerable victims. That is an important consideration.

Sitting suspended.

My Lords, before I begin, on behalf of the whole House I wish the lovely noble Lord, Lord Judd, a speedy recovery. I was glad to see him sitting up and giving us a thumbs up on his way, hopefully, to St Thomas’.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked about the gendered nature of domestic abuse. Of course, we want to ensure that all victims and all types of domestic abuse are sufficiently captured and that no victim is inadvertently excluded from protection or access to services. As the committee report recommends, we fully recognise that domestic abuse is a gendered crime that disproportionately affects women and girls and which, of course, has a devastating impact on children. That is why we have amended the Bill to expressly provide that the statutory guidance on the definition must include and address these issues. In the statutory guidance we also intend to recognise the additional complex factors that may occur in domestic abuse situations—for example, mental health or substance misuse issues—and their interplay with abuse.

Both noble Baronesses asked about our support for children. One of the key functions of the domestic abuse commissioner will be to encourage good practice in the identification of children affected by domestic abuse and the provision of protection and support to people, including children, affected by domestic abuse. Under the terms of their appointment, the commissioner will be required to have in their office a thematic lead to represent the interests of children. That is why the Government launched an £8 million fund up to March 2020 for new services designed to support children affected by domestic abuse. The proposed new statutory duty on local authorities in respect of the delivery of support in accommodation-based services is designed to meet the needs of all victims, including their children.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, asked about education places for children. We want to make the process of securing a school place outside the normal admissions round as straightforward as possible for parents and to reduce any delays, so that children—especially the most vulnerable—can secure a place as soon as possible and do not have any gaps in their education. We will give further consideration to the best way we can achieve that aim, taking into account feedback from the sector.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, also asked about disabled people and people abused by their carers. The Bill will recognise abuse of people with disabilities by their carer as domestic abuse if the victim and perpetrator are personally connected. A personal connection between the perpetrator and the victim is central to that form of abuse.

Both noble Baronesses asked about the Prime Ministerial candidates’ commitment to this Bill. After the Statement in the other place, my honourable friend confirmed that both candidates had firmly committed their support for this Bill going forward.

Both noble Baronesses asked when the Bill would arrive in this House. When it will pass through both Houses is a more difficult question to answer, but when it will arrive in this House is a good and understandable question. I understand that it will arrive here by the end of the year.

My Lords, I concur with the Minister’s views about the noble Lord, Lord Judd. He will be greatly missed from the debate later today in the House. I served as a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Borders and can recall casework where there were administrative problems with individuals who had to tackle cross-border issues with regard to the legal framework and relationships between local authorities in Scotland and England. That was prior to the welcome changes in legislation that the Minister referred to both for England and last year for Scotland, and prior to the changes in welfare legislation in relation to housing benefit in particular. What administrative relationships are in place to ensure that these changes do not exacerbate the potential difficulties that women, primarily, find themselves in on cross-border issues?

The noble Lord makes a good point about having legislative alignment and making sure that legislation in one part of the UK does not contradict legislation in the devolved Administrations. Of course, those conversations and that work are ongoing to ensure that precisely that does not happen.

My Lords, I crave the forbearance of the House. I have two questions; one of my own and one from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who, due to the adjournment, has had to leave. My question relates to the needs of very vulnerable people, mainly women, on release from prison. During my visits to our local women’s prison, I have learned that a higher proportion of women in prison than is the case in the general population come from violent and abusive relationships. It is critical that such women and other vulnerable people who have been abused are released into a safe, secure place with secure accommodation. Is the Minister aware that on occasion, due to things such as poor communication between the probation service in prison and the probation service outside prison, things go wrong and, tragically, a woman is released into danger? What action might the Government take and can the issue be looked at in this Bill, along with the needs of migrants and asylum seekers, so that women and vulnerable people are never left vulnerable and in danger on release from prison? That is particularly critical when a prisoner is released on a Friday and the weekend is coming up.

My second question is on the All Kids Count report on the two-child limit. My friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham highlighted to me that serious questions arise from the rape clause and domestic abuse in relation to that policy. Will the Minister agree to meet him to explore that?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for her question on behalf of the other right reverend Prelate. She talked about women on release. I fully concur with the points she makes, because I have visited women near to where I live in the local women’s prisons, and the percentage of those women who are in an abusive relationship and perhaps have children from that relationship is extraordinarily high. I observed that this is often coupled with substance abuse that may or may not be related to that abuse, and poor levels of education. So I think the right reverend Prelate refers to a multiplicity of vulnerabilities, which of course those women need support to overcome. I fully concur with that point and perhaps we will talk about it again.

On the other point she made on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, I think he may have raised it before—I am not sure—but certainly I would be happy to meet him about it.