House of Lords
Monday 25 January 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House. Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions confine them to no longer than 30 seconds and to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
My Lords, this is a complex and global cyber incident. There is an ongoing, cross-government response and we are working with international partners to fully understand its scale and any UK impact.
My Lords, the Minister has pretty much repeated what the NCSC said back in December. This was one of the largest and most sophisticated cloud and software cyberattacks ever. SolarWinds’ customers included the Home Office, the MoD, the NHS, the Royal Navy, the Cabinet Office and several local authorities. Surely there has been time to evaluate and at least start countering the impact, identify the source and communicate with those potentially affected? Microsoft has been very transparent in its communications. Is it not time that the Government did likewise?
My Lords, the noble Lord will understand the sensitivities of these questions. I beg him to understand that work is ongoing and will take some time. However, we are already well placed to respond, thanks to our national cybersecurity strategy. Simply having SolarWinds does not automatically make an organisation vulnerable. The National Cyber Security Centre is working to mitigate any potential risk and guidance has been published on its website.
My Lords, the Government have a very impressive record on cybersecurity, but I note that our current public strategy is dated 2016-21. Can my noble friend set out when the Government plan to publish their forward strategy, 2021-25? Will that include the important role that the UK can play internationally in establishing cyber norms?
I thank my noble friend for his comments. He is, of course, right that the current five-year strategy expires this year. The next iteration of the strategy is being developed and is expected to be published this year. This will set out the direction and ambition for the UK to be a continuing leader in cybersecurity, in line with the priorities of the integrated review. It will also set out how the UK will step up its efforts to shape the global rules, as my noble friend commented.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. The response from the noble Lord has been complacent. A large number of systems in the national infrastructure use SolarWinds software and have been compromised. The House has not been told how many. Will the Intelligence and Security Committee be briefed on the full extent and implications? There is a wider question: does reliance on such commercial software solutions not create a single point of failure for our security and economy, as multiple systems—otherwise unrelated—can be penetrated simultaneously, potentially leading to a catastrophic collapse?
My Lords, the Government’s response is anything but complacent. I had hoped that I had made that clear, but I will say it again. The Government’s response is not complacent. The NCSC is working to mitigate any potential risk. Actionable guidance has been published through its website. We urge organisations to take immediate steps to protect their networks. We will continue to update as we learn more.
A congressional commission has given President Biden a 15-point list of priorities for reducing the probability of, and addressing recovery from, cyberattacks. Will the Government be referencing that plan as part of assessing UK preparedness, and discussing measures similarly with Parliament?
The noble Baroness makes an important point about international co-operation. She is quite right to say that malicious activity knows no boundaries. We regularly discuss cybersecurity with a range of international partners, including the G7, sharing our analysis of threats and our experience. I can give an assurance that we will continue to do so.
FireEye, which uncovered the attack, judged that the tradecraft involved was consistent with state-sponsored actors. Microsoft’s Brad Smith described it as “a moment of reckoning”; it was “not ‘espionage as usual’” but
“an act of recklessness that created a serious technological vulnerability for the United States”
and beyond. Joe Biden has now promised to make cyber-security a top priority given the recent digital espionage. How have the Government responded to President Biden, since this does not appear to have been covered in the phone call that he had with the Prime Minister?
My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness has better information than I do on the call between the President and the Prime Minister. The Government are certain that cybersecurity is absolutely at the heart of our overall defence need and defence capability. I repeat: we will work with all friendly allies in that area. The UK considers attribution on a case-by-case basis, but I do not have anything further for the House at this stage.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the greatest lessons from SolarWinds is that the basics need to be right—password management, multifactor authentication and so on? Can he confirm that this is understood across the public sector and in all arm’s-length bodies, and that securing the supply chain is a constant and urgent need? Further, would he agree that in the UK we have an excellent cyber community, with private firms such as NCC and world-leading public institutions such as the NCSC? The Government should do everything to support this cyber industry so that it can do everything to protect us.
My noble friend makes some important points. Obviously recognising the increasing importance of this area, the government security group is leading the development of a government cybersecurity strategy—which will sit underneath the national strategy —to deal with some of the issues my noble friend refers to. We also have a wide range of advice and support to help private sector organisations protect themselves.
My Lords, my question follows on from that of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, and concerns resilience and the impact on operational technology, rather than simply IT, where experts say it may take months for difficulties to appear. Credible analyses suggest that the simple network management protocol—SNMP—fails to meet the tests of confidentiality, integrity and availability. It is not going to be replaced quickly, but are the Government at least looking at ways in which it can be reinforced across their own systems, while ensuring that that happens right across vital private systems in our country?
My Lords, I apologise; I found it quite hard to catch every part of the noble Baroness’s question. I hope this is not an inadequate answer, but I am unable to comment on operational detail at this stage. However, as I have assured the House, the NCSC is working to mitigate all potential risks, and this work is ongoing.
My Lords, SolarWinds highlights concerns about the growing privatisation of cybersecurity attacks through a new generation of private companies, described in a recent Microsoft blog as
“akin to 21st-century mercenaries”
“the option for nation-states to either build or buy the tools needed for sophisticated cyberattacks.”
Already the US is battling one such company in their courts. Can we be assured that the Government’s review will consider whether our cyber capability and regulatory infrastructure is fit for purpose in the face of this emerging threat?
I agree with the noble Lord on the importance of sustaining and improving that capability. The Government are certainly giving attention to that—seeking to promote cyber skills and to encourage a sustainable pipeline of homegrown cybersecurity talent, and protecting our critical infrastructure. That is a key part of the strategy going forward. The noble Lord is quite right that, currently, the demand for cybersecurity skills outstrips supply. We must mend that issue.
My Lords, I used to write encryption software. Why does the trade and co-operation agreement recommend using encryption and hashing algorithms, which are both outdated and vulnerable to cyberattacks? It makes us look silly in the eyes of the technology world and just encourages hackers.
Integrated Review: New Ships
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the statement on the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy by the Prime Minister on 19 November 2020 (HC Deb, cols 488–9), how many of the new ships have been ordered; and, if none, when the first orders will be placed.
My Lords, the department is currently developing plans for a new class of frigate and research vessel to support UK interests. Following the concept phases, yet to be launched, programme and procurement strategies will be determined. However, the Type 32s will be UK-built—a clear demonstration of both this Government’s and the shipbuilding tsar’s commitment to supporting UK industry and to ensuring the Royal Navy continues to have the modern ships it needs.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. She will not be surprised that jam tomorrow has been a regular feature of defence reviews. I am concerned that the financial pressures the MoD is under, despite the welcome four-year settlement and additional funding announced last year, will affect build programmes and impact on the already small and ageing frigate force. The recent NAO review of the MoD equipment plan states that it remains “unaffordable”. The MoD estimates a £7.8 billion shortfall, but it could be as high as £17 billion. Leading up to the long-trumpeted integrated review, has there been any discussion about putting the capital costs of the deterrent submarine replacement once again outside of the defence budget, where it was until placed inside by Chancellor Osborne in 2010? It would resolve the MoD funding problem at a stroke.
My Lords, all MoD obligations and commitments, including the nuclear deterrent, are budgeted for in the MoD budget. While I understand the noble Lord’s concern about the cost of the equipment plan, I reassure him that the department is taking important steps to address that. I think he is looking through his glass half-empty, rather than his glass half-full. Quite simply, the recent financial settlement for the MoD and the Prime Minister’s commitment to new naval assets mean that not only will our fleet grow for the first time since World War II, but its high-end technological capabilities will allow it to provide a better contribution and to retain a first-class Navy up to 2040 and beyond.
My Lords, the Prime Minister in his Statement on the integrated review said that it will ensure a “renaissance of British shipbuilding” across the United Kingdom—in Glasgow and Rosyth, in Belfast, Appledore and Birkenhead—and it would guarantee jobs. This is most welcome, but how many jobs are guaranteed and, with 1.7 million unemployed, where is the focus on job creation?
My Lords, the scale of the shipbuilding capacity contemplated for the next decade and beyond is a very positive message for jobs. We all acknowledge that when shipbuilding orders are placed, the companies and communities around them benefit. We have seen that to good effect on the Clyde, the Forth and other shipyard locations south of the border, and that is very welcome. The estimate of jobs for the new craft is difficult to determine at the moment. There is an estimate that the Type 32, for example, represents an investment in UK shipbuilding of over £1.5 billion for the next decade and that would create and sustain roughly 1,040 jobs.
My Lords, our industrial partners in Scotland, principally BAE and Babcock, are trusted industrial partners doing what is acknowledged to be tremendous work in shipbuilding the Type 26 frigates on the Clyde and the Type 31 at Rosyth on the Forth. The plans for independence at the last referendum were shrouded in total uncertainty by those who advocated independence. The noble Baroness is right to raise the concern, because it is pretty clear that an independent Scotland would not be able to commission work to the scale that we currently see placed with yards in Scotland.
My Lords, defence’s integrated operating concept highlights the need to deploy fully our assets on a persistent basis. As we discussed last week in Grand Committee, this can only help defence’s contribution to global Britain. Given the obvious success of the deployment of HMS “Montrose” to Bahrain, where it will be for a number of years, does this mean that we will now see Royal Naval assets forward deployed, perhaps, to Gibraltar, Singapore or elsewhere?
My noble friend raises an important point, which effectively goes to the heart of why we have Royal Naval assets and what we think their primary purpose is. I reassure him that we are actively expanding the model of permanent forward deployment of ships such as “Montrose”. For example, HMS “Forth”, like her predecessor “Clyde”, is currently forward deployed to the Falkland Islands; a further Batch 2 offshore patrol vessel “Medway” is operating in the Caribbean region; and the recent operations of HMS “Trent” in the Mediterranean and Atlantic have been centred on our permanent joint operating base in Gibraltar. We intend to build on this model in the coming months and it is a key consideration for the role of the new Type 31.
My Lords, I draw attention to my relevant interests in the register. Despite the very welcome uplift in defence spending announced last year, the affordability of much of the new capability promised, such as new ships, rests on the need to retire current capabilities quite quickly—some arguably prematurely. Will the Minister inform the House of when such decisions will be made and which capabilities will be affected?
My Lords, in the timetabling of shipbuilding and the estimated dates for taking delivery and for vessels being in service, a close eye is kept on the need to maintain our key operational obligations. That eye is vigilant and I reassure the noble and gallant Lord that the issues to which he refers are very much at the forefront of MoD thinking. We consult our industrial partners frequently to ensure a smooth transition.
The Prime Minister said that he was breaking free from a vicious circle. He said that
“we ordered ever decreasing numbers of ever more expensive items of military hardware, squandering billions along the way”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/11/20; col. 488.]
He now wants to spend an extra £16.5 billion in the “teeth of the pandemic”, as he put it. Given that the Conservative Party has been in control of defence spending for over 10 years, what “important steps”, to use the Minister’s words, have been made to date in procurement and auditing to avoid further squandering?
The noble Lord raises an important question. Of course, for five of those 10 years, his party was part of the coalition Government, sharing responsibility for the Ministry of Defence. His important point merits attention and we look carefully at how we now procure. For example, the model for the Type 31 procurement achieved a concept—a placing of order—extraordinarily quickly, because there had been a recognition that we needed to be much more effective and swift in our approach to procurement. The noble Lord raises an important point and I reassure him that it is very much before the MoD and we are applying measures to implement good practice.
My noble friend’s initial response referred to supporting UK industry. The fact is that the building of warships has been irregular and sporadic and it has been very difficult for companies to sustain a qualified workforce, because of the nature of the orders. Will the Minister assure the House that this time business and orders will be given and spread over the UK, including to Harland & Wolff in Belfast so that shipbuilding can be sustainable in the long-term, rather than reacting to sporadic and irregular orders?
It is right to refer to what the Prime Minister said because he recognised what had been, frankly, a corrosive problem in the way in which the procurment of Royal Naval assets was embarked on. The National Shipbuilding Strategy identified the challenges and weaknesses to which the noble Lord has referred, and the strategy was clear that a much more stable approach had to be adopted in respect of UK shipbuilders. What is happening currently is clearly good news for UK shipbuilders, and the noble Lord has rightly raised the matter of cross-UK activity. I am pleased to say that, with Harland & Wolff taking over the Appledore shipyard, the Government are working closely with the company to understand better how we might support our shipbuilding industry throughout the United Kingdom. That is the commitment made by the Prime Minister and it is one that we will see being sustained by the recently announced intentions for Royal Naval assets.
My Lords, in our manifesto we committed to increasing the planting of trees across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025, and we are working with the devolved Administrations to achieve this. We have consulted on a new England tree strategy which will be published in the spring. Responses to the consultation and ongoing advice from the Forestry Commission, charities, sector experts and others are informing the development of an ambitious plan to deliver our commitments in England
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. My particular concern, however, is the conflicting advice that growers are receiving. The Forestry Commission, which is the government expert on these matters, is encouraging a portfolio approach to combat climate change, including the importation of seed sourced from the benchmark of up to five degrees south, whereas the Woodland Trust, driven by biosecurity fears, is recommending only UK-sourced and grown plants. However, seed has been safely imported since time immemorial. Whom do we believe?
My Lords, the England tree strategy is designed to make sense of the Government’s commitment to identify the steps we will have to take in order to deliver on it and identify the funding streams. The priorities will be clearly set out in the England tree strategy, but, fundamentally, we will favour a mixed approach. However, we also favour an approach that recognises the biosecurity needs of this country and the fact that there are tree diseases queuing up at the border on the continent, waiting to cross the water and do damage to our trees.
My Lords, I support the Government’s tree planting scheme, bearing in mind that trees that are planted in upland areas will need a growth period of 30 years-plus in order to sequester carbon effectively. How will the Government ensure that the species that are planted will be capable of surviving in a warmer climate 30 years ahead?
The noble Lord makes an important point, but, as I have said, the England tree strategy will take a very long-term view. It will provide a vision for what our treescape should look like up to 2050 and probably beyond, even though the steps that it will identify relate to this Parliament. We need to and will be taking a very long-term view.
Invasive non-native species like grey squirrels and muntjac deer are a clear threat to our native biodiversity. They cost the economy around £1.8 billion per year and they impact negatively on our trees and woodlands. The Forestry Commission provides advice on maintaining red squirrel habitats and managing grey squirrels, while the Roslin Institute is researching into ways to breed infertility into females. This would provide a more humane way of reducing their numbers. In addition, we support work by the UK Squirrel Accord in developing an oral contraceptive to reduce the grey squirrel population.
My Lords, trees are essential to meeting the Government’s biodiversity and carbon targets. However, massive tree planting programmes have seen saplings being poorly planted and subsequently dying in large numbers. Can the Minister reassure us that the money to be put into the tree planting strategy will indeed deliver healthy adult trees in the future?
I can absolutely reassure the noble Baroness that the purpose of the England tree strategy is to deliver trees for the long term. It would be regarded by us and by everyone else as a failure were we not to deliver larger mature trees in the future.
My Lords, I declare an interest through my work in conservation as set out in the register. Will my noble friend the Minister join me in congratulating the people of Pakistan on their successful initiative of planting 1 billion trees in their ongoing bold campaign to plant an additional 10 billion trees? Can he share with the House any practical lessons that we can learn from these programmes?
I absolutely and enthusiastically commend and celebrate Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami and the, I believe, tens of thousands of jobs that have been created on the back of it. It shows what is possible. Here in the UK, we are committed to increasing tree planting across the country by 30,000 hectares per year by 2025. That, too, will mean an increasing number of people working in the forestry and arboriculture sector. Our upcoming England tree strategy will map out that ambition and the steps we will need to take to realise it.
Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government’s tree planting ambition, which I fully endorse, is regarded as a key part of a land use strategy and that the need to address food security is also taken into account in identifying land to be planted? Can he further reassure us that, in optimising carbon sequestration, other benefits—to the ecosystem, the economic benefits of growing trees, and public access—will also be taken into account, and that a mix of species is encouraged so that regeneration might take place?
I strongly endorse the noble Lord’s comments. Trees are much more than carbon sticks; they provide biodiversity benefits, benefits in managing water flow and reducing pollution in the water system, in preventing or minimising the risk of flooding, in holding water for longer during the dry season, in amenity value for people, and so many benefits besides. Our tree policy and the incentives that are part of it will attempt to ensure that with public money we are purchasing as much solution as we possibly can. That, too, will be reflected in the new environmental land management scheme, which will replace the old common agriculture policy in a few years’ time.
My Lords, given the importance of tree planting to our climate change obligations, what legislative and enforcement powers do the Government envisage to ensure that tree planting targets have actually been met? Given that we have failed to meet the targets to date, will the Government commit to enshrining them in law via the Environment Bill?
My Lords, it is certainly true that we have failed to meet targets in the past, but that is why we are embarking on the England tree strategy and why we have provided numerous funding streams to ensure that we can practically deliver that ambition. We have the £640 million nature for climate fund. We have the Woodland Carbon Guarantee. In due course we will have the environmental land management system. We have the urban tree challenge fund, the trees outside woodlands project, and the green recovery challenge fund, which has just been doubled to £8 million. We have recently announced funding for 10 community forests from Yorkshire to Somerset, which will deliver around 500 hectares, with an investment of £12 million—and so on and so forth. We have the tools and the funding in place to deliver the trees that we need.
My Lords, the Corporation of London has warned against focusing just on increasing numbers of trees and thereby ignoring the role of wood pasture and slow-growing, long-lived landscape trees, which sequester more carbon than equivalent areas of woods plus pasture. Is this fact being taken into account as well as the amenity value of such areas?
The noble Baroness makes a really important point, which relates to an answer I gave earlier about the multiple benefits of trees and woodlands. One area that we are looking at closely is the important role of natural colonisation or natural regeneration of land in increasing woodland cover. It encourages natural establishment of local trees, species diversity and better adaptation to local conditions. It supports a wider range of wildlife but also reduces the risk of importing tree disease—a point made earlier. It also reduces plastic tree guards—a terrible blight in many parts of the country—and is, on the whole, low-cost.
My Lords, in the past half century, we have lost many trees to disease, including an estimated 20 million mature elm trees and a projected 100 million ash trees. What are the Government doing to ensure that we have sufficient research and expertise in tree diseases to keep ahead of future threats? Will the Minister tell us how many universities in England offer postgraduate education in tree pathology?
My Lords, I cannot provide a specific numerical answer, but will follow up with a written answer. We know that a large number of ash trees will become infected, but not all will die. We expect 1% to 5% of ash trees to show some tolerance to the disease, which is heritable, so we are funding research into a future breeding programme of tolerant trees. We are also conducting the world’s largest screening trials and will be planting the first tolerant trees this year.
My Lords, social capital is the fabric that binds our communities together. Sources, such as the ONS and our Community Life COVID-19 Re-contact Survey, shape the steps that build communities. Covid shows that there is much to build on. The number of people who informally volunteer increased to 47% during the pandemic. This Government were elected to level up the country: our £4 billion levelling-up fund, our £1.5 billion shared prosperity fund and the £1.57 billion culture recovery fund, as well as a raft of other commitments, will help build social capital across communities, as we build back better.
My Lords, the ONS report says that the trend has not been good, and that was before the pandemic. The pandemic has forced us into more remote and flexible hybrid working, and the effect has fallen unevenly across society, increasing inequality. Research suggests that social capital boosts well-being and efficiency by reducing transaction and monitoring costs and building trust, but does this not then call for yet more effort on behalf of the Government? The current effort seems inadequate.
I genuinely disagree with the noble Lord’s last point. He is right that the impact of the pandemic has been uneven and hit the poorest hardest, and young people particularly hard, but I commend to him the Chancellor’s Statement at the spending review, which is a long list of major financial commitments.
Churches and other faith communities bring together a diversity of people across all ages and backgrounds, and thus are often a strong source of social capital, as well as spiritual capital, as we have seen during the pandemic. Will the Minister say what Her Majesty’s Government are doing, both financially and in other ways, to enable local and faith communities to invest in and rebuild their social capital, as we emerge from this pandemic?
The right reverend Prelate makes an important point. My noble friend Lord Greenhalgh has been working hard, in his role as Faith Minister, to bring faith communities together. I am happy to share an obvious example with the House, which is the role that faith groups are playing to support the vaccine rollout, and to manage misinformation and disinformation about the impact of vaccines.
My Lords, while young people have mainly been spared the ravages of disease during the pandemic, they have suffered the economic and social consequences of the pandemic response, which we have had to follow, probably more than anyone else. Does my noble friend agree that we need to rebuild social capital and offer this group hope? Will she endorse the proposal of a funded year to serve, which was offered and suggested by the Repairing our Social Fabric programme at Onward? I declare my interest as the chair of that programme.
I absolutely agree with my noble friend about the impact the pandemic has had on young people. That is one of the reasons that the Chancellor announced a review of youth provision outside schools, which will be reporting in May this year. I thank my noble friend and his colleagues at Onward for providing excellent analysis and research on the year to serve, and I am happy to continue a further conversation with him about that proposal.
Is the Minister aware of small organisations such as Social Echo, which works in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire? I declare an interest, because I am part of the team that put it together. It has been building on the enormous social kindness that broke out last year and is trying to stitch organisations and businesses together—the estate agent with the homeless organisation, et cetera. They are the backbone on which we have to rebuild the social capital that we are talking about.
I agree with the noble Lord and thank him for his tireless work in this area. I share his recognition of the outpouring of social kindness. Our efforts, in the funding that we have provided the voluntary sector in particular, have predominantly focused on small local organisations, for exactly the reasons that the noble Lord sets out.
My Lords, the fragmentation of society, starkly illustrated by the report, is the consequence of replacing the ethic of public service with that of private profit, of privatisation, outsourcing, austerity, the closure of libraries and youth clubs, ending rent controls and taking measures against collective bargaining, causing the real value of wages to stagnate and poverty for 4 million in working families. I assume that the Minister will confirm that there will be no U-turns on these damaging policies.
The issues that the noble Lord raises are more complicated, as I am sure he knows, than some of the limited examples that he has given. I commend to him the work that the Government are doing, particularly on social impact, the use of the Public Services (Social Value) Act in all government procurement and the emerging hybrid model of profit and purpose.
My Lords, the limited research available during this pandemic suggests that the increase in neighbourly kindness and community activity has been more prevalent in better-off areas. If the Government are intent on levelling up, how much of the levelling-up fund are they proposing to spend on social infrastructure, given that in most of the examples that I can see the Government are rightly dealing with economic disadvantage—that is, infrastructure and economic activity? How are the Government proposing to redress the imbalance in social capital?
The noble Lord is absolutely right; it is not just about what we do and what we spend on but how we do it and who we involve. I point the noble Lord to the shared prosperity fund, on which we will get more detail in the spring, where there is a clear ambition to invest in civic institutions and community-owned assets and give that sense of connection and agency that every community deserves.
My Lords, participation in voluntary organisations can be crucial in the development of social capital. Hearing the stories of communities coming together and volunteers—including those who have never volunteered before—helping their neighbours has been extraordinary. We must not lose all this good will and enthusiasm that we have seen over the last year. Could my noble friend the Minister reassure me that the Government are adapting and innovating fast enough to continue growing our national culture of volunteering?
My noble friend raises a very important point. The Government are absolutely committed to trying to capitalise on the surge of good will that she describes and build a real volunteering legacy. We are developing a new volunteering strategy and, within that, reviewing a number of options, including a volunteering passport, and really trying to understand where the need for volunteers is greatest.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, is also Minister for Loneliness. Does this ONS report signal any adjustment to the Government’s current loneliness strategy, which was set up in memory of Jo Cox MP? If so, can she point to any policy areas that might be adjusted?
I start by saying that it is an enormous honour to be the Minister for Loneliness. My inbox on loneliness is fuller than on any other subject that I am responsible for, and it is something that absolutely touches every one of us. Our strategy will continue predominantly along the same lines; namely, talking about loneliness and the stigma, and making sure that funding goes to organisations that connect people. During the pandemic we have brought together a group of around 70 organisations in our tackling loneliness network that are advising us on particular themes in relation to young people, digital, place and older people.
Arrangement of Business
EU Ambassador to the UK: Diplomatic Status
Private Notice Question
My Lords, we continue to engage with the European Union on the long-term arrangements for the EU delegation to the UK. I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of those discussions. I assure noble Lords that we are committed to ensuring that the EU delegation, the head of delegation and staff have the privileges and immunities they need to function effectively. We want a relationship with the EU based on friendly co-operation. The EU delegation has an important role to play in this.
My Lords, this is about whether the Government are treating the new EU partnership with the seriousness it deserves, or whether they are squandering good will—indeed, being “petty”, in the words of the Conservative chair of the Defence Select Committee—at the expense of the UK’s real interests. Not only will the UK be negotiating for years to come to fill the gaps in the TCA, but any easing of the burden of Brexit red tape will require EU co-operation. Can the Minister therefore assure me that the Government are not acting in a misguided belief that they are acquiring leverage, since this will not work, and that they will grant ambassador status?
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s last point, as I indicated in my Answer, we are in discussions with the EU. I share her view: as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, we want to be the best ally and the best partner to the European Union. I assure her that those discussions are being engaged in equally forcefully on our side to ensure that the outcome is optimum for both sides.
My Lords, I admire the Minister personally, but surely he can see that the Government’s initial decision not to grant full status to the EU ambassador will be seen by the rest of the international community as peevish and vindictive. This being Burns Night, I commend to the Minister Robert Burns’s invocation:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion”.
Taking that to mind, in the discussions due to take place will he urge his fellow Ministers to reverse this blunder and do the honourable thing?
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s poetic interlude and value his contribution, as ever. I assure him that the Government have not stated any public position in this regard, apart from the fact that we continue to negotiate and work with the EU on the long-term arrangements. As I said, we desire an optimum outcome that works for both sides.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Government’s decision is gratuitously offensive, not only to the EU authorities in Brussels and the other member states, but to Portugal, our oldest ally, since the ambassador, João Vale de Almeida, is a Portuguese diplomat? Can my noble friend also give us a concrete example of what benefit this unnecessary action will bring this country?
My Lords, I listened very carefully to my noble friend, as I always do. I assure her that, as I mentioned, we are engaging with the EU on the long-term arrangements for the delegation, which will be by mutual agreement. We have not yet reached that point. I therefore do not wish to pre-empt those discussions, but I reassure her once again that the EU delegation and its head will have all the privileges and immunities they need for their mission to the United Kingdom to function effectively.
My Lords, the UK approved the decision taken by the Council of EU Ministers in July 2010 in setting up the External Action Service that EU delegations in third countries should have
“privileges and immunities equivalent to those referred to in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations”.
While we were a member state, 142 countries around the world granted this status to EU delegations so that they could do their work effectively. The nature of the EU has not changed. Why is there even an issue to be negotiated with the EU about its status in the UK?
My Lords, it is not for me to answer about what other countries offer the EU in terms of privileges and immunities. I can confirm that the EU delegation has the necessary privileges and immunities to enable it to carry out its work in the UK effectively. As I said—noble Lords will acknowledge that this is one of those occasions where I am, in general, repeating the key message I seek to deliver—we are currently live in negotiations with the European Union on this very issue. In no manner should I pre-empt the outcomes of those important discussions.
My Lords, I detect an imminent U-turn. As the Minister knows, the UK has worked very closely with EU ambassadors in many countries to make sure that approaches are agreed and pressure is as effective as possible. Will the UK no longer recognise them as ambassadors, further weakening the UK’s ability to muster support for common approaches on issues, including human rights, an area for which he has personal responsibility?
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite keen to suggest that the difference between the status of nation state embassies and that of international organisations is minor, so can he explain why we are going through this process, which will waste not only the energy of his department but good will by insisting on the latter?
My Lords, when the noble Lord rises to speak I often look to his expression. On this occasion it was one of deep concern, accompanied by a frown. I assure him that I hear very clearly what he says. Of course a range of international organisations enjoy privileges and immunities in the United Kingdom, including those for their heads of mission. Because we are where we are with the European Union there is little more I can say at this juncture about the outcome of the discussions, but I assure him and others that we will continue to work with the EU as a key and important partner, and be the best friend and ally to the EU, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions.
My Lords, the very first article of the trade and co-operation agreement talks of
“good neighbourliness characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation, respectful of the Parties’ autonomy and sovereignty.”
Could the Minister explain how the Government’s current fence-top position is consistent with this core aspiration of our new and important relationship with the EU?
I agree with the premise and context of the noble Earl’s question, but I assure him that we are currently in discussions for the very reasons he has articulated. The EU is an important partner to the United Kingdom. At the end of the transition period, our intention is to be the best ally and friend to the EU. We will work in that respect, whether on its status here in the UK or on other key issues. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, it will remain an important partner in all respects.
My noble friend has said that he does not wish to pre-empt the negotiations, but I think it will be clear to him from the exchanges so far that not one Member of your Lordships’ House who has spoken so far is not very surprised to find that the status of an ambassador is part of the negotiations. I appreciate the difficult position that my noble friend is in, but may I suggest that this be sorted out as quickly as possible, so that we can live up to the intention of being the best friend and ally?
Does not the Minister agree that it is time now to put aside gesture politics and to focus instead on developing the relations necessary to make a success of, for example, the G7 summit in Cornwall and the climate change summit in Scotland? In both of those, the European Commission will, whether we like it or not, have a major and important role to play.
Let me assure the noble Lord, who speaks with great insight and experience, that we are doing exactly that. We want to focus on the G7 summit and on the other important priorities that lie in front of us, including dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the rollout of the vaccines, and, equally importantly, our planning for the COP 26 in November in Glasgow.
My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but does he understand that he is completely failing to convince the House of the need for any discussions about the status of the EU ambassador in Britain? Should he not be communicating this to the Foreign Secretary—who, although we have been urged many times by the Front Bench to move on from the Brexit debates and arguments, seems incapable of doing so in his search for cheap points that will go down well with his Brexiteer Back-Benchers?
My Lords, I work closely with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, and, as I said in response to an earlier question, of course I will feed back the sentiments of your Lordships’ House. However, I can speak for my right honourable friend. Over the past year or so I have seen the importance he attaches to our colleagues across the EU and the close working partnerships and friendships he has formed, so I disagree with the noble Lord in both the final element and the premise of his question: that is not the case. We work very closely with the EU collectively, but also with key partners within the EU, most notably Germany and France. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has an important role in leading on those relationships.
May I belatedly—I understand that he has been here for some months—welcome the EU ambassador to the United Kingdom, as I welcome the ambassadors of every EU member state? Obviously, though, there is now scope for duplication, because no one will be quite clear where the lines are delineated between the EU ambassador and the ambassadors of the nation states. Can my noble friend tell me which member states have approached the Foreign Office and said that they wish to reduce their representation in the United Kingdom because of the arrival of the EU ambassador?
My Lords, I follow on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. We have talked about the importance of sovereign equality in our relations with the European Union, so do we intend to accept that our representation in Brussels should be reduced both in status and in size? As a point of comparison, the United States regards its representation in Brussels as one of its most important; it is also one of its largest. Do we not think that ours should be similar?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. I am sure that he will recognise, from his time as a Minister at what was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the appointment of the new ambassador to the Permanent Mission at the European Union, who is a very capable official and acts at a very senior level. Indeed, he was centrally involved in the discussions on the new agreement that we have reached with our European Union friends.
My Lords, is the European Union a state? And is there any non-state organisation that has an ambassador in the United Kingdom? Does the Commonwealth Secretariat, for example, have an ambassador in London? Finally, can a state be represented by two ambassadors? In other words, if the European Union has an ambassador, do all 27 members of the European Union have to withdraw their ambassadors?
My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord has answered his own question, but, for the record, of course the Commonwealth does not have an ambassador. The Secretary-General is present here and the Commonwealth as an international organisation has a presence, but not in the manner of having an ambassador. Nor does any other international organisation have an ambassador to the United Kingdom. However, I stress that decisions about the EU and its representative voice, whether in the UK or elsewhere, are for the European Union—and of course, through various elements of the multilateral sphere, member states are represented, as is the European Union itself.
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 21 January.
“We are in the midst of one of the toughest periods of this pandemic. Yesterday saw 1,820 deaths, which is the highest toll since the crisis began. As we endure these dark days and the restrictions that we must all follow to save lives, we know that we have a way out, which is our vaccination programme. Thanks to the hard work of so many people, we now have an immense infrastructure in place, which day by day is protecting the most vulnerable and giving hope to us all.
I am glad to report to the House that we have now given more than 5 million doses of the vaccine across the UK to 4.6 million people. We are making good progress towards our goal of offering everyone in priority groups 1 to 4 their first dose by 15 February. That is a huge feat, and one in which we can all take pride. We are vaccinating at a greater daily rate than anywhere in Europe—twice the rate of France, Spain or Germany.
The first 5 million doses are only the beginning. We are opening more sites all the time in cathedrals, food courts, stadiums, conference centres, GP surgeries and many, many other places. Today, a cinema in Aylesbury, a mosque in Birmingham and a cricket club in Manchester have all come on board as part of 65 pharmacy-led sites across England that are joining our vaccination programme this week. That ongoing expansion will help us protect even more of the most vulnerable even quicker. From today, we will also publish more localised, granular data, broken down by NHS sustainability and transformation partnership area, as well as by region, so that the public have the best possible information about all this work.
This virus is a lethal threat to us all. As we respond through this huge endeavour, let us all take comfort in the fact that we are giving 200 vaccinations every minute. In the meantime, everyone must follow the rules to protect the NHS and save lives. We can do that safe in the knowledge that the tide will turn and that, with science, we will prevail.”
My Lords, there was a very worrying story in the media this weekend, which I hope the Minister will use this opportunity to clarify. We learned that the MHRA and NHS Digital have issued official instructions on how to use NIVS, saying that where staff do not have an NHS number, the vaccine should not be given. One email sent to a hospital explicitly states that overseas nurses without NHS numbers, even on the front line, should not be vaccinated. And what about security staff, porters, student nurses coming from outside the country to work for us and staff such as cleaners? Through contracts, lots of people from BAME backgrounds and recent immigrants working in the NHS are not registered with GPs, do not use the NHS, and do not have an NHS number. How can it possibly make sense, from a public health point of view, not to vaccinate everyone on the front line?
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for that question, because it will help me to clear up a misconception in this area. Having an NHS number is very important. We cannot know who has had the vaccine and who has not if we do not know what their NHS number is. That is extremely important for their own treatment; it is also best practice. As any clinical practitioner will tell us, it is imperative to know the identity of the person being treated. It is also very important for pharmacovigilance and for the research that will come on the back of the vaccine. If we were to vaccinate a large proportion of the population without knowing who they were, we could not do the research necessary. There will be some people who do not have an NHS number, and we have put in place protocols to ensure either that they can get an NHS number or that a workaround can be found. Those we are pursuing with haste. I emphasise to noble Lords that this is an opportunity to ensure that everyone in this country, whether a visitor or a resident, has an NHS number by the end of this programme.
My Lords, here in Sheffield, approximately 45,000 people have been vaccinated, owing to the excellent work of our local GP hubs, but because of lack of vaccine supply, 10 out of 15 of those will be closed and will not be able to get the jab into vulnerable people’s arms again until the middle of next week. Yet the new Sheffield mass vaccination centre has opened today and has vaccine. Local GPs have asked me to ask the Minister why the distant megacentre has been given priority for vaccine supply over the local and effective GP hubs.
It is not a question of one place taking precedence over another. I take a moment to applaud and pay tribute to GPs in Sheffield, and to all those who have proceeded at pace and got through their allocation as quickly as they could. That is absolutely the right priority and the right approach, and it is how we are going to get through the population very quickly. However, some people will get through their list more quickly than others, and it would be a mistake then to start asking them to move down the list when there are still those with very high priority who need to be vaccinated. Although I understand that it may be frustrating for a GP to stand idle, those are the practicalities of what we are doing. The mass vaccination centres are essential to deal with the very large numbers of people that we plan to vaccinate over the next few months. That is why the Sheffield vaccination centre is such good news.
My Lords, I support the Government’s utilitarian public health approach to the spacing of vaccine doses, but does the Minister accept that the argument is dependent on an understanding of the full implications of different dosage regimes, and that a lack of specific data on this particular point in relation to the Pfizer vaccine is fuelling concerns? Will the Government now undertake research on this specific point as part of a vaccine rollout programme, to underpin robust and well-supported policy implementation, both here and in many other countries that could benefit from this data?
My Lords, the amount of research that we have on the Pfizer vaccine and all other vaccines is huge. Most, though not all of it, is published. I assure the noble Baroness that we have all the data needed to make the decision that we have. She is right that we are doing the pharmacovigilance that is necessary to understanding the efficacy of the vaccine and any possible side effects. That research will be shared with international partners in the way that she suggests.
My Lords, the Prime Minister revealed on Friday the great news that 10% of all adults have now received their first dose of the Covid vaccine, with two-thirds of elderly residents of care homes now meeting that first milestone. This wonderful effort now needs to be matched by a strategy to ensure that it is not only the elderly who are protected but the young, with a commitment to reopening our schools as soon as possible. Social mobility gains that have given a lift to disadvantaged children over the past decade are at risk of being wiped out by Covid lockdowns. The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has already increased by almost half, with 12% of 11 to 18 year olds not having access to the internet at home. Given that the rollout of the vaccine to the most vulnerable is set to reduce deaths by 88% by mid-February, what steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to increase NHS capacity to ensure that schools can open as soon as possible?
My Lords, it is indeed very good news. I pay tribute to the work of my noble friend and of the Legatum Institute in championing the need to address social inequality. She rightly draws attention to the horrific impact that this pandemic and the associated lockdowns are having on social mobility. It is a massive priority for us. The problem that we are wrestling with is not just hospitalisation but the transmission associated with schools, but I assure her that this is a number one priority for us.
I wish to make two points and I draw attention to my interests as listed in the register. First, I am very concerned about prisons. There are reports that about 71 prisoners have died, and the number of prison staff who have tested positive continues to rise alarmingly. There is great flux within a prison, with staff coming and going, and those being released from prison and those coming into prison. Will the Government consider prioritising the vaccinating of prisoners and those who work in prisons? Secondly, I add my voice to those calling for teachers and early years staff to be prioritised. Schools are open and our dedicated teachers and early years staff must be able to continue their work safely and not be off sick, if we are to do the right thing by our children.
The right reverend Prelate is entirely right to highlight prisons, and I share her deep concern in this area. I pay tribute to the Prison Service for keeping Covid out of prisons for nearly a year. It has done an amazing job, and we should all be very pleased with the incredible protocols that have been put in place to save our prisons. However, she is entirely right that we have a problem on our hands. It is a major priority for the Prison Service, which is bringing in testing protocols and, if necessary, will look at other measures to ensure that prisoners and those who work in prisons are safe.
I want to follow up on the answer that the Minister gave to my noble friend Lady Thornton. I was quite shocked by his reply, because I am quite sure that most people working in the National Health Service who do not have a number are probably the lowest paid, from black and ethnic-minority communities, or temporary staff—the very people who are just as much on the front line as doctors and nurses. I do not think that being assured that there will be a protocol, or a workaround, is adequate. Can the Minister say what protocol there will be, what priority it will have, and how soon all of this will be communicated to the people who are affected?
My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that it is communicated on the front line immediately. I did not have a valid NHS number until a week ago: it took me a couple of days to get one, but it was provided extremely promptly. I am hopeful that anyone who is lacking an NHS number can get one extremely quickly when they apply.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for all his hard work on this subject. As he says, the vaccination rollout rightly aims to prioritise the people who are most vulnerable to Covid, but this mainly focuses on age. On the BBC news yesterday, we heard directly from several people with learning disabilities about their well-founded worries concerning the Public Health England data, which shows that they are six times more likely to die from Covid. Given this, and the fact that only 40% of people with learning disabilities reach the age of 65, does the Minister agree that relying on a strategy of vaccinating them at the same age as other people magnifies their existing health inequalities and discriminates by failing to recognise their increased risk?
My Lords, the JCVI looked at this very question in great detail. It is very conscious of discrimination, but its focus is on morbidity. Its judgment, which I entirely back, is that age, more than anything else, is the driver of morbidity. That is why the prioritisation is structured in the way that it is. Those who are CEV are also prioritised. Many of those who are most vulnerable and who also have learning difficulties will qualify under the CEV threshold. However, I have passed her arithmetic to the vaccine taskforce. She makes a very good point that those with learning difficulties and autism have a different life profile and die at an earlier age. I have asked the system to ensure that this arithmetic has been considered in the prioritisation list. I will be glad to reply to her when I have the answer.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. I ask all Members to respect social distancing.
I will call Members to speak in the order listed in the annexe to today’s list. Members are not permitted to intervene spontaneously; the Chair calls each speaker. Interventions during speeches or “before the noble Lord sits down” are not permitted.
During the debate on each group, I invite Members, including Members in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time. The groupings are binding and it is not possible to de-group an amendment for separate debate. A participant who might wish to press an amendment other than the lead amendment in a group to a Division must give notice, either in the debate or by emailing the clerk. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the Question is put, they must make this clear when speaking on the group.
Domestic Abuse Bill
Committee (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 21st and 28th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1: Definition of “domestic abuse”
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—
“(a) B is aged 16 or over and is personally connected to A,”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would expand the definition in the bill to include a relationship where one person was under 16 and the other was over 16.
My Lords, I am very conscious of being the first speaker at this stage of a Bill which has been so widely welcomed, and which so many people, outside and inside the House, are ambitious to amend—or maybe I should say expand.
There are some niggles, but I do not think that any noble Lord is planning to oppose any clause standing part of the Bill. That is very unusual. Often, giving notice of an intention to oppose a clause standing part is not to signal opposition but to probe or interrogate the Government on what lies behind the printed words or how the Government intend them to be fulfilled. The Bill has been a long time in the making, so the Government have had a lot of time to refine it.
This is not the moment for a Second Reading speech—Committee is the stage at which we are workmanlike—but I want to make one general point, which is to thank all the organisations and individuals who have contacted us and informed our thinking. Their hard work and determination are impressive. We will be anxious to do justice to them, but I fear that it will not be possible to credit them by name. Nevertheless, I hope they appreciate that we appreciate that this is a collaborative effort, in which they are partners.
My noble friends Lady Burt and Lord Paddick are on the Front Bench for this Bill but, by chance, I have the privilege of moving the first amendment. I should declare what I regard as interests, because they certainly affect how I think about the issues. For many years, although some time ago, I was a board member and then chair of Refuge. I am currently a member of the board of Safer London, whose work with children and young people can mean addressing family and other personal connections, including working with young people to help them understand what good relationships are.
So, to Amendment 1. There has been debate about the abuse of children but this amendment is not about that. The focus of the Bill is the abuse of partners, and we now have Clause 3, which concerns the impact on children who witness that abuse.
I have from time to time heard reports of abuse by children of adult relations. One would hope that ways outside legislation would be used to deal with such behaviours, but I would be grateful if the Minister could explain to the Committee how the Government regard, for instance, violence or threats of violence by a 13 year-old towards his mother or grandmother. A teenager living in the same household as a grandparent could be in a position to extract money or valuable items from the grandparent. Noble Lords can imagine various reasons: how this might be prompted by a need for drugs, or to get money for a gang, as gang members often regard their gang as their family. We want to ensure that the Bill is comprehensive, and the intention behind the amendment is to ask why it applies only when both individuals are 16 or over.
I realise that it is necessary, in proposing a change to the scope of a Bill, in a non-technical sense, that one should ask oneself: what follows? Should it be a protection order or qualifying for statutory support? Nothing is achieved by extending the categories of people to whom the Bill applies simply as an expression of concern without also considering what is achieved in practice, although it may help us all to understand how other, existing, legislation covers their situations. This is a probing amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as listed in the register. I listened with great interest to the noble Baroness’s explanation of this first amendment. I bring to the House a different situation that in my view is covered by the amendment, but which the noble Baroness has not put forward. Like many of the groups I am involved with, I am very opposed to marriage under the age of 18. There is no doubt that a number of teenage marriages involve domestic abuse. It is important to recognise that, in such marriages, those under 18 are as much at risk as anyone else. Later, I will deal through amendments of my own with a situation I am particularly concerned about: young people both under and over 18 who are forced by coercive control or physical abuse into an unwanted marriage that they—she, generally, but sometimes he—do not want to enter. That is why I want to raise this issue as perhaps another probing part of the amendment: to recognise this group of young people aged under 18.
My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Hamwee, I restate my interests in respect of this Bill. Noble Lords will recall the story of the farmyard animals that come up with the idea of rewarding the farmer with an egg and bacon breakfast, to which the pig responds to the chickens, “I’d be committed to this; you’d only be involved.” As a former police officer who dealt with countless cases of domestic abuse during my service, and as a survivor of domestic abuse myself, I very much feel like the pig when it comes to this Bill.
Amendment 1 questions why both perpetrator and victim have to be 16 or over. We understand that, if the victim is under 16, the offence would be child abuse rather than domestic abuse, but not if the perpetrator is under 16 and the victim over 16. For me, the acid test is whether someone is being placed in the intolerable position of not feeling safe in their own home as the result of the abuse. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee has described, this might be the result of the actions of someone who is under 16—elder abuse of a grandmother by a grandchild, for example.
The Minister will acknowledge that increasingly younger children are becoming involved in county lines drug dealing. One of the many worrying aspects of county lines is how children are becoming violent towards their own family members at home as they become embroiled in the savage and ruthless culture of drug gangs, particularly when they are challenged about their behaviour by a parent or guardian. My noble friend described the amendment as probing. On reflection, I believe that it may become increasingly necessary. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, the Bill currently defines domestic abuse as involving two people aged over 16. As has been said, the amendment would expand this definition to include a relationship where one person was under 16 and the other over 16. It appears that the definition would apply where the victim was over 16 but the perpetrator was not. We have doubts about the definition in the Bill being changed in this way, but I understand from what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has said that this is a probing amendment.
Teenage relationships, and the victims of teenage relationship abuse, have specific needs, which should be addressed through a separate strategy tailored to them and recognised as an issue separate from both child abuse and the abuse that takes place between adults. As I said, we recognise that this is a probing amendment, but our concern is that if the age of the perpetrator in the definition is lowered—as appears to be the effect of the amendment in the circumstances set out in it—we would end up prosecuting and treating some perpetrators under 16 as, in effect, adults, which is not a road we believe we should go down. However, the issue of younger person or teenage abuse raised by the amendment is an important one, which the Government should address through a specific strategy and guidance for this group of victims and perpetrators. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response.
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in thanking all the many organisations that have collaborated with us on the Bill to date; communication has been incredibly constructive in virtually all cases. As she said, no one demurs from supporting this Bill; the question for debate is how we get there. I am grateful to her for affording us the opportunity to debate the minimum age of 16 in the definition of domestic abuse.
The amendment would expand the definition of domestic abuse to include a relationship in which person A, the abuser, is aged under 16 and person B, the victim, is aged 16 or over. Clause 1 as drafted provides that the behaviour of person A towards another person, B, is domestic abuse if
“A and B are each aged 16 or over and are personally connected to each other, and … the behaviour is abusive.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, pointed out, abuse in relationships where the victim or both parties are under 16 years of age will be treated as abuse of a child and subject to existing criminal offences, and legislation relevant to safeguarding procedures will be followed. In cases where the abuser is under the age of 16 and their victim is over the age of 16, as in this amendment, appropriate safeguarding responses will be followed which, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has just pointed out, seek to avoid the criminalisation of children.
In cases where one or both parties are under the age of 16, relevant safeguarding measures are already in place through primary legislation to protect children from harm. There is statutory guidance, such as Working Together to Safeguard Children and Keeping Children Safe in Education, which sets out how the definition of harm is applied in practice. Local authorities and all safeguarding agencies are required to have regard to this guidance.
In answer to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, I can say that in 2012 the cross-government definition of domestic abuse was amended to include those aged 16 and 17, following a consultation with the aim of increasing awareness of young people’s experiences of domestic abuse. Then, following the 2018 consultation on domestic abuse, it was clear that strong support for maintaining that age limit of 16 for both parties remained. This view was shared by the Joint Committee which examined the draft Bill. It rightly acknowledged that lowering the minimum age risks conflating different types of harm to children and extending the criminalisation of under-16s—something we must be mindful of, of course, and which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, pointed out. I take the opportunity to reassure the Committee that the Government also recognise the seriousness of domestic abuse between teenagers where both parties are at least 16 years of age.
Under Clause 73, the Secretary of State may issue guidance on the kinds of behaviour that amount to domestic abuse, and must issue guidance on the effect of domestic abuse on children. This guidance will include abusive teenage relationships where the parties are at least 16 years of age and the impacts that these relationships have on victims.
In addition, relationships, sex and health education is now a statutory part of the curriculum. The focus on healthy relationships in both primary and secondary schools will help children and young people who are experiencing or witnessing unhealthy relationships to know where to seek help and report abuse, as well as addressing inappropriate behaviour, harassment, abuse or exploitation. To support schools to deliver lessons on these topics we have developed teacher training materials, which are available on GOV.UK. We are also offering training sessions led by teaching schools. We will have a further opportunity to debate teenage relationship abuse when we reach Amendment 184 at the end of Committee.
I hope that, in light of the explanation I have given in relation to the distinction between child abuse and domestic abuse and the widespread support for maintaining the minimum age of 16 years, the noble Baroness will be happy to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, of course I will withdraw my amendment at this point. However, before I beg leave to do so I want to say that, as my noble friend Lord Paddick has pointed out, what goes on in society changes from time to time. At the moment it is county lines. We need safeguarding responses—I would not dispute that for a moment—but we need to look at what is available for safeguarding and what helps with prevention. I mentioned orders. I will also mention domestic violence protection notices and particularly—depending on what happens as we consider later amendments to the Bill—statutory community support. I would have thought that that might have a role, but would not be available if we confined the definition to two people over 16. I look on those measures as part of a raft of preventive measures. I will continue to think about this as we proceed through the Bill, as obviously this is not divorced from the rest of the Bill. I am not going to attempt to answer the noble and learned Baroness, who brings a different concern to the same wording. For the moment, I beg leave—
Before the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment, I had a very late request from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, to have a word after the Minister. Can we please hear from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick?
My Lords, I want to make a general point: the point of speaking after the Minister is to challenge something that she has said. That may be in the very last sentence that she speaks. Therefore, there should be a pause to allow people who want to challenge the Minister to email before we go to the mover of the amendment.
The Minister says that the perpetrator age should not be less than 16 because the Government want to avoid criminalising children. How is that consistent with the approach that they are taking in the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill? They want to increase penalties for children under that Bill, but apparently do not want to criminalise children in this.
I apologise to the noble Lord. Would the Minister like to come back on that particular point?
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. We might have got the choreography slightly wrong, but I am always amenable to answer questions, even though the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has clearly signalled her intention to withdraw her amendment.
I am not diminishing the seriousness of this compared to children who may involve themselves in terrorism. I will not be dealing with the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, but the noble Lord will know our other legislation—for example, one of the central premises of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 was to ensure that children who took a wrong step in their early years were not criminalised for the rest of their lives. Terrorism has very serious implications on people’s lives—not that domestic abuse does not. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Parkinson, who is sitting beside me, will elucidate further on that when we get to that Bill.
I now apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Would you like to complete your speech please? Do you wish to withdraw your amendment?
Before I do, I would like to say that I asked about this problem; I do not think my noble friend knows that. It is nobody’s fault in the Chamber, but we might write some sort of pause into the procedure. I have asked if the Procedure and Privileges Committee can consider that, because I was caught out last week. I now beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 2. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the Clerk during the debate and anyone wishing to press this or the other amendment in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
2: Clause 1, page 2, line 1, at end insert—
“( ) parental alienation;”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the other to Clause 1 in the name of Baroness Meyer is designed to ensure that in cases where one parent alienates a child from their other parent, which harms the child’s welfare, this is treated as a form of domestic abuse of the other parent.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 2 and 4. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann and Lady Watkins of Tavistock, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for their support.
I would like to start by telling you a story. In 1994 a mother—a British citizen—sent her two sons aged nine and seven to spend their holiday with their father in Germany as per their custody agreement. The children never returned. After four months of separation, in which the father blocked all contact between mother and sons, even on the telephone, they met again at a German family court. The older son greeted the mother by hitting and kicking her. The younger son turned his head away and refused to look at her. When they had set out for Germany, they had been normal loving sons.
This was the beginning of a long separation that lasted for nine years—until the day when the older son, having reached his majority, came to London with his younger brother to see the mother. During those nine years, the mother had a few snatched meetings with her children—a total of 24 hours and always in Germany in the presence of a third party. The children were not allowed to visit her, and the mother was never allowed to reach them on the telephone, even to wish them a happy birthday or a merry Christmas.
The mother went to the courts time and again to find justice—to no avail and to her financial ruin. She was repeatedly blocked by the argument that her sons did not want to see her any more. The argument was sustained by the children’s apparent hostility towards the mother, a hostility instilled by the father’s relentless denigration of the mother and her family.
That mother was me. This is the reality of parental abduction: my lived experience. Today, unlike many fathers and mothers who have suffered in the same way, I am happily reunited with my sons. But make no mistake—it has been a very difficult road. It took more than our years of separation to repair our relationship, and it has scarred me for life. It also led me to create a charity to fight the evil of missing and abducted children and the use of children as weapons of war by one parent against the other. These campaigns led me to be appointed to this noble House and compel me to address this issue today.
There is much debate about parental alienation. Cafcass, which has first-hand experience of dealing with children, defines it as a situation where
“a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”
It is precisely this type of psychological manipulation that should be explicit in the Bill. Parents in abusive relationships should not have to endure what I did, and neither should their children; that is the purpose of these amendments.
There is an argument that these matters fit better in legislation dealing with child abuse. I do not agree—we must distinguish means from ends. The Serious Crime Act 2015 condemns coercive, controlling behaviour in a relationship; what behaviour could be more coercive and controlling than a parent using a child as a means to overwhelm the other parent? It is domestic abuse, fair and square. As his Honour Judge Stephen Wildblood QC put it:
“The problem with Parental Alienation is that it’s not about the child at all. It is about the adults. It is about adult issues. It is not child-focused ... It’s using children as an instrument of that parent’s skewed emotions; it is in every sense wrong”.
I am aware that some in this House are concerned that parental alienation is used by men as a tool to silence victims of domestic abuse, but that is why we have judges: to give careful consideration to all the evidence and distinguish truth from falsehood. Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 tells us to treat the child’s welfare as “paramount”. How can judges possibly do that if they cannot tell the difference between a genuine case of parental alienation, another concocted by an abuser-parent and yet another where a child is justified in accusing a parent of abuse?
From my lived experience as a victim-parent and charity campaigner for 19 years, I can tell noble Lords how easy it is to spot a genuine case of parental alienation. Children who reject a parent because of the harm that the parent has done to them do not display signs of what psychologists call “psychological splitting”, which denotes a child who has been the subject of systematic indoctrination. The defining feature of a parentally alienated child is the intense hostility to, and outright rejection of, the targeted parent. The child’s bifurcation between hostility to the targeted parent and loyalty to the alienating parent is absolute. The process of indoctrination, usually before a court hearing, moves fast. It can take just four months, as it did in my case, and the longer the child is without contact with that parent, the deeper the damage. This is why the courts must intervene quickly to break the creation of this vicious circle; the alternative is to wreck lives and destroy whole families.
I am more than alarmed that the Ministry of Justice should turn to Dr Adrienne Barnett to create
“a literature review to support their inquiry into domestic abuse”.
The good doctor has described parental alienation as a cunning stratagem used by fathers against mothers. Of course, this can be the case, just as much as it can be used by mothers against victim-fathers. I came across plenty of them when I lived in the States, where I ran my charity.
However, that is not the point; there are two serious points here. First, if we allow this issue to become yet another arena for gender war, as Dr Barnett seems to want, it will get in the way of the main objective: to protect all victims of domestic abuse. Secondly, if the Ministry of Justice wants its inquiry to have any credibility, its review must embrace all sources of this contentious issue.
I remind the Minister of the sheer volume of peer-reviewed research by members of the academy, mental health practitioners and judicial officers around the world, which reaches similar conclusions: there is no statistically significant difference between women and men as perpetrators and victims; the effects of parental alienation on children are severe and last into adulthood, and the effects on the victim-parents are equally severe. In summary, parental alienation is child psychological abuse, the collateral damage of domestic abuse. In other words, to quote the Honourable Lady Justice Parker of the High Court’s Family Division:
“Parents who obstruct a relationship with the other parent are inflicting untold damage on their children and it is, in my view, about time that professionals truly understood this.”
All this material appears to have been ignored by the Government—goodness knows why. Perhaps it is because the Ministry of Justice is daunted by the subject’s apparent complexity and is attracted to simplistic and one-sided analysis, such as that of Dr Barnett. What happened to me is the reality of parental abduction. It is not, as some would have it, an ideology or a concept; it is my lived experience and that of thousands and thousands like me, both men and women. It is an almost unbearable experience of grief, sorrow and pain. There is no place for gender politics here.
I beg your Lordships to support these amendments. If we are to put a stop to this evil of parental alienation—and surely we must—it cannot happen until the right legislative framework is in place. The casualties are too many; there are fathers, mothers and children who are damaged forever and those who kill themselves. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I want to apologise for my intervention on Amendment 1, which was quite inappropriate. I stupidly misunderstood, and I apologise.
I support Amendments 2 and 4. False allegations, of the severity of which the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has spoken, are abusive to the other parent, who is the victim—and, of course, they have extremely adverse effects on the children. As a former family judge, I found those cases not only very serious but distressing. In some, it was impossible to achieve an outcome of a relationship between the child and the parent whom the child had been taught to loathe, despise and have nothing to do with. It was very distressing.
It is important, however, to recognise that these are a minority of cases. It is equally important to recognise, as the noble Baroness said, that they can be used as a defence against genuine allegations of domestic abuse. I got an email this morning setting out how a woman had clearly been abused but the man kept telling the court that it was parental alienation and he was not prepared to accept that he had been guilty of abuse.
In the majority of cases, the reason for non-contact or limited contact between a parent and their child should be the implications of domestic abuse. It is important, however, to leave discretion over contact and looking at parental alienation to the judges. The judicial college might consider whether for some judges, at some levels—not the High Court—there is adequate judicial training in this complicated subject. A little more time might be spent teaching magistrates, district judges and circuit judges a little more about it.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill, which is designed to help victims of domestic abuse across the country with comprehensive measures that introduce enhanced protections against, and recognition of the suffering of victims of, many forms of abusive behaviour. I support the aims of the Bill and, alongside many victims, eagerly await its introduction.
I rise to speak to Amendments 2 and 4, to which I have added my name. It is a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and I thank my noble friends on the Front Bench for engaging with us on this issue. I hope we may continue discussions before Report.
The Bill’s first four clauses provide a broad definition of domestic abuse and concentrate on behaviour rather than definitions or syndromes. These amendments were excellently introduced by my noble friend Lady Meyer. The whole Committee must have been moved by her explanation of the way this issue has impacted on her. Clause 1(3) identifies psychological, emotional and other abuse but does not mention the behaviour described in these amendments, which we call alienation or, specifically here, parental alienation. If children are used as a weapon by an abusive parent against another parent and the wider family, this is surely domestic abuse and belongs in the Bill.
A network of leading international and UK experts in several professional fields, after consultation with other professionals and stakeholders involved with parental alienation and child psychological abuse, have produced a paper which we are happy to share with interested noble Lords. It concludes that parental alienation is most readily described as a range of behaviours and is not a syndrome, as some people like to call it. It is both child abuse and domestic abuse, but not a diagnostic label, which supports our aims of identifying it in the Bill.
Parental alienation has been confirmed by Cafcass as being both child abuse and domestic abuse, involving clear coercing and controlling behaviour. Fathers, mothers and other family members can be perpetrators and victims, but the children are always the victims. In its helpful briefing to Peers, Cafcass explains that parental alienation is a description of an array of behaviours, processes and outcomes when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation through a range of abusive behaviours by the other parent.
I recognise that there is controversy surrounding this issue, which saddens me. My noble friend Lady Meyer dealt with a number of the issues that have concerned us, including what appears rather a one-sided assessment of the case against parental alienation. Of course, it is possible that abusive fathers will use this in the context of family courts to commit further abuse against a mother trying to protect her children, but the Bill is about domestic abuse; fears of allegations being falsely made are inherent in much legislation yet surely cannot be a reason to decline to legislate.
Responsible legislators must not be biased in favour of one group or another but should be mindful of the broad sweep of issues that need to be considered. Even if there are egregious examples of women being abused by this kind of alienation, there are many men, and children and wider families, who also need protection against this abuse. It is important that each allegation is carefully examined by the court at an early stage. Sometimes, there is both psychological abuse by alienation and physical or sexual abuse in the same family. But there is a lack of reliable evidence—as opposed to anecdotes by parents who may regard court decisions wrong—that men or women are more likely to raise false allegations, or that courts systemically prefer fathers or mothers. Therefore, what is relevant, and beneficial to the Bill, is to require proper exploration of alienating behaviours, so that these can be observed by mental health professionals, together with family judges and lawyers across the UK in identifying cases where parental alienation or alienating behaviours have occurred.
I agree with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that it would be helpful to have enhanced judicial training to identify and understand these behaviours, but it is essential that qualified professionals assist the court with assessing whether there is this type of abuse and identifying problems of alienation at an early stage, before the psychological impact becomes ingrained in children and does dreadful long-term damage, which has been described as being associated with this issue. I hope we may discuss this further with other noble Lords and the ministerial team to make progress on this matter for Report.
My Lords, I must apologise to your Lordships’ House for not being able to speak at Second Reading. In the 10 years that I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships’ House, I have from the start focused on the despicable behaviour of those who harass, stalk, and coercively control their current or former partners. This Bill recognises so many of the agonies that victims of domestic abuse have faced, whether male or female, including by at last recognising that children themselves can also be victims of domestic abuse and coercive control.
Over those years, we have succeeded in getting much of this behaviour recognised in the criminal system through reforms of the stalking laws and clear definitions of coercive control, but there remain problems in both the family and private courts. I was pleased to hear the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, mention again the need for judicial training on this, as what I am going to say reflects the fact that far too few judges have had the training they need to understand these difficult and complex issues. That is why, I am afraid, I am going to disagree with Amendments 2 and 4, despite the moving speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and the fact that child abduction can never, ever be right.
Your Lordships’ House has a special role in scrutinising legislation, a duty that it carries out with due care. I am sure that the movers of this amendment are sincere in their belief that such a definition would be helpful, but I and others think that it would not be, principally because parental alienation remains a controversial subject, as previous speakers have mentioned. There is no commonly accepted definition, no reliable data on its prevalence, and a lack of peer-reviewed and robust academic studies to give confidence in any such definition.
It is worth noting that these moves are unanimously opposed by all of the victims’ and domestic abuse commissioners, as well as domestic abuse charities, and I thank them all for their briefings. They tell us that there is worrying evidence that the concept of parental alienation has gained a significant foothold in the UK family courts and is already being used in judgments relating to child safety. Worse, there is also alarming evidence that the fears of false allegations of parental alienation are becoming a barrier to victims of abuse telling the courts about their experience. The Ministry of Justice report, Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases, published in June 2020, makes that plain.
The report received deeply concerning evidence that fears of parental alienation are directly supressing allegations of domestic abuse. The review received several submissions which highlighted how
“victims were advised by professionals, including their own lawyers, not to raise domestic abuse because the courts would take a negative view of this and it may be used against them as evidence of parental alienation or hostility to co-parenting.”
The strength and dominance of allegations of parental alienation are, I am afraid, now beginning to shape the legal advice being given to survivors of domestic abuse and coercive control.
Among its recommendations, the Ministry of Justice report says that
“the Child Arrangements Programme should incorporate a procedure for identifying abusive applications and managing them swiftly to a summary conclusion.”
“Fears of false allegations of parental alienation are clearly a barrier to victims of abuse telling the courts about their experiences.”
Inexplicably, the phrase “parental alienation” has been included in draft statutory guidance for the Bill as a form of coercive control, despite not appearing anywhere in coercive control legislation. Will the Minister ensure that this reference to parental alienation is also removed from the draft statutory guidance?
Why are there such concerns about parental alienation on the part of those who are experts in domestic abuse? They are seeing a direct relationship between allegations of parental alienation and potentially unsafe child contact or residence arrangements. Some parental alienation experts recommend dramatic measures to treat this alienation, including a 90-day deprogramming window in which the child is placed with the allegedly alienated parent and is allowed no contact the with alleged alienator. In reality, this means that many children are placed with parents they are afraid of—whether that is rational or not—who are alleged abusers and whom the children often directly state opposition to living with. This is a deeply distressing intervention for the child and the parent who may have lost custody, who is given no knowledge of their child’s welfare during this time.
There are experts whose views I trust, and whom I hope the House will hear. Nicole Jacobs, the designate domestic abuse commissioner, has said:
“I am increasingly concerned about the potential for the idea of ‘parental alienation’ to be weaponised by perpetrators of domestic abuse to silence their victims within the Family Court. So much more must be done to improve the understanding of domestic abuse within the Family Court, which is the single most common issue that victims and survivors contact me about. I have heard of some terrible examples where the Family Court fails victims and survivors of domestic abuse, and addressing these will be a top priority for me and my Office.”
Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, says:
“The government has now recognised that children are victims of domestic abuse not bystanders and that they too suffer harm from the abusing parent. That cannot now be ignored and their future entrusted to a parent who has already harmed them. Any courts who entertain this notion”
of parental alienation
“will do huge damage to justice and damage to large numbers of children who are already suffering from their abuser’s behaviour. This Bill must not recognise any validity in this groundless notion. In every case about the welfare of children the evidence is what matters. The courts must guard against the well-known phenomenon that they are used as a further tool of abuse by manipulative domestic abuse perpetrators”.
The Women’s Aid Federation of England says:
“Parental alienation is increasingly used in the family courts, but there is a dearth of robust evidence to back up the concept or reliable data on its prevalence. The ‘pro-contact’ culture in the family courts means that parents are expected to facilitate contact, even if they have concerns about safety. It also means that allegations of parental alienation—where one parent is accused of encouraging their child to resist contact with the other parent—can be taken more seriously than allegations of domestic abuse and other forms of harm. Theories of parental alienation should never be accepted without analysis of the impact they have on survivors of domestic abuse and their children.”
It is also worthy of note that, having adopted a definition of parental alienation, the World Health Organization has now agreed to remove any reference to it.
I agree with the concerns expressed in the Ministry of Justice report, by the various commissioners working with victims of domestic abuse and coercive control, and by the organisations supporting victims. I hope that the Minister will also agree that there is no place in this Bill or its statutory guidance for a concept without a robust evidential basis, or one that can be used by perpetrators to continue their abuse of their former partner and children.
My Lords, I added my name to these amendments because I feel strongly that we are not picking up domestic abuse early enough in the process. Part of that is a failure to identify and become aware of the forms of abusive behaviour for what they are. One of the most important aspects of the break-up of a relationship is the effect on children, as they can be terribly damaged through that process. The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has given us a moving description of her experiences, and I pay tribute to all those who have written to me for and against these amendments. I respect what they say.
My strong feeling is that by the time domestic abuse cases get to the courts, views are already polarised, resentments are deep-seated and entrenched, and an intensely adversarial legal system is in play. Anything not proscribed by law seems to be fair game, and the outcomes are all too often a matter of sweeping up the broken fragments of family relationships as tidily as possible.
We know that one of the problems is parental alienation. I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has said; her experience is far and away ahead of mine. One of the reasons it is not picked up at an early enough stage is the absence of an identity that would trigger intervention and appropriate support long before matters came to the formal attention of the police or the jurisdiction of the courts. We know that this is one of the reasons why certain domestic abuse instances are not recorded at all. I acknowledge that the spectrum of such abusive behaviour is enormous, labyrinthine and often a matter of controversy among experts, but signposting this for earlier intervention seems an unassailable point.
I have seen, read and listened to objections to the term “parental alienation”, but lack of definition or labelling—or, for that matter, the awareness that goes with that—does not make the problem cease to exist. It is quite clear that it does. As I just said, I see as one of the problems the nature of the judicial and adversarial process that must be dealt with. I make no criticism of the judiciary, which has to pick its way through enormously complex issues and try to find the best way forward for the parents and particularly the children. It concerns me that, if we do not have a definition, the abuses that have been described and the excuses, particularly of male partners against female partners that the female is indulging in parental alienation of children, will not go away or in some way become less likely.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, suggests that parental alienation is readily identifiable. I cannot speak to that but, from my own observations, I agree. From what I have seen from many who have written to me, it is an identifiable condition. I appreciate that it is complex and multifaceted, but I think we all know, on a results basis, what it means in practice.
This is not just a definition for lawyers and the courts of when things have got to that terrible stage of events when everybody has dug themselves into their positions and every sort of lever and form of manipulation is being used in the cause by one side or the other, but a definition for everybody—particularly upstream of those situations where, as the Domestic Homicide Review has identified, available signs indicated that there were problems which could and should have been picked up. That keeps cropping up. I believe the same is true for parental alienation, as a component in what is quite clearly a larger pattern of abuse.
That is why I support these amendments—primarily because children are caught in the middle here. They are being used as part of the process of leveraging some sort of advantage by one partner against the other. That must stop. It must be identified as offensive, save in circumstances where it is demonstrated that it is being done with the best interests of the child unequivocally in mind—for instance, where there is clear evidence of physical or other sorts of abuse of that nature and something must be done. That is why I support these amendments and have put my name to them.
My Lords, I support the amendments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and others. She spoke very powerfully from her own experience, but it is obvious even to those with only limited experience, drawn from those they know are going through divorces, that how a parent speaks of and encourages their children to speak of the partner from whom they are estranged is one of the challenges facing a divorcing couple, if not the major one.
A parent who loves their child wants not only to keep their child’s love; in return, they want that child to think and speak well of them. There must be a severe temptation, even for the most altruistic parent, if they believe their partner has terrible faults, to draw these to the attention of their children. Thank goodness there are very many divorcing couples who resist that temptation. They want good parenting to continue after the divorce by both parents; whatever they feel, they try not to let this influence their child in their relations with the other parent. However, the temptation to speak negatively about the estranged partner to their children must be severe in some cases, and sadly some actively encourage hostility. We know that a child’s expressed wishes can sometimes be the result of indoctrination by one parent against the other to sever the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.
I have read the evidence of Women’s Aid and listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. They have worries about these amendments. They are properly concerned that such amendments, if passed, might result in allegations of child abuse not being taken as seriously as they should, and clearly that argument needs to be weighed with due seriousness during the passage of this Bill. However, it seems to me that what is put forward in Amendments 2 and 4 does not in any way depend on evidence that something is discredited, but on a realistic recognition of how embattled couples too often operate. I believe that, difficult though it is, specialists in child abuse, who could be called into court if necessary, would be able to distinguish this from a situation where one parent is clearly using their child as a weapon. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has said, if the judges are given adequate training, they too would be able, in their wisdom and experience, clearly to distinguish the one from the other.
We need a clear marker in law that some ways of alienating children from the other parent are totally unacceptable and need to be shown to be clearly illegal. I believe this is best seen not as a form of child abuse but as an aspect of domestic abuse. There may be child abuse in some cases, but this does not take away from the fact that some parents, while not guilty of abuse, alienate their children from the other parent.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the Government on this Bill, particularly the recognition that children are also victims of domestic abuse when witnessing abuse, often between parents. I support Amendment 2, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and her supporters, and Amendment 4, to which I have added my name.
In briefings from some quarters, there is disagreement on the inclusion of parental alienation in this Bill. It is argued that this is because there is as yet no clear definition of the term. The issues have been very ably outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. However, I believe that a lack of definition merely means we are in the process of making much greater—[Inaudible.]
Lady Watkins, we have lost you—we can see you, but we cannot hear you. I think we will carry on and hopefully come back to the noble Baroness later, if she will forgive us. I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Helic.
I thank my noble friend Lady Meyer for her moving and courageous contribution based on her personal experience. However, I am unable to support Amendments 2 and 4.
I wish to focus my remarks on the deliberate misuse of allegations of parental alienation as a tactic to minimise or cover up serious allegations of domestic violence and abuse; in other words, allegations which direct attention away from an abusive parent onto a protective parent. We must guard against them becoming a loophole, or a get-out-of-jail card, in our law, in a way which makes it even harder for victims of domestic abuse—whether male or female, young or old—to receive protection, medical and emotional care, and justice.
The concept at the heart of the amendments put forward by my noble friend emerged in the United States during the 1970s. The core idea was that, if a child appeared afraid of one of their parents, or did not want to spend time with them, this was the result of pathology, rather than a possible reaction to that parent’s behaviour. This theory was developed in the 1980s by psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who came up with the term “parental alienation syndrome”. Gardner believed that almost all children in custody litigation suffered from this supposed syndrome. To treat it, he recommended de-programming therapy, which denied maternal contact in order to change a child’s belief that they had been abused. To be clear, he thought that children should be forced to live with a parent whom they said abused them.
While the term “parental alienation syndrome” has fallen from fashion, theories of parental alienation, alienation, and children who resist or refuse contact are all grounded in the same ideas. And just like parental alienation syndrome, these new terms are based on weak evidence, founded mainly on clinical observation rather than empirical academic studies. The World Health Organization has also dropped the concept from its index and classification altogether.
While there is very little evidence for parental alienation, there are clear studies which demonstrate the gendered assumptions and myths underlying it. A recent American study published a few months ago found not only that 82% of the alienation claims analysed were brought by fathers but that fathers were more than twice as likely than mothers to win their cases when claiming alienation, and that fathers’ claims of alienation were far more likely to result in a change of residency than mothers’ claims. Parental alienation is not just bad science; it is bad science biased against women.
Despite this, the idea of parental alienation persists in public discussion and has gained traction in some parts of the family justice system, particularly regarding parental alienation experts being instructed in cases. But these so-called experts, who often have very limited credentials, are still referring to Gardner’s discredited theories and recommending transfers of residence from mothers to fathers. This has the potential to cause real harm. The Cafcass Cymru review noted that
“the label parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has been likened to a ‘nuclear weapon’ that can be exploited within the adversarial legal system in the battle for child residence”.
Yet these damaging ideas are now being proposed for inclusion within the statutory definition in the Bill.
The Bill is meant to tackle domestic violence, but as that quote warned, perpetrators of domestic abuse use this discredited theory to undermine non-abusive parents. This tactic has been highlighted by specialist domestic abuse organisations for more than a decade. There is clear research highlighting the links between domestic abuse and parental alienation allegations. A Canadian study looking at cases involving parental alienation accusations found that 42% also featured allegations of domestic or child abuse. In almost four-fifths of these cases, the parental alienation allegation was made by the alleged perpetrator of domestic or child abuse against the non-abusive parent.
Domestic abuse experts are clear about what is happening. Parental alienation is being used as a stock response to any allegation of domestic abuse. In contrast to the weak evidence base for parental alienation, the pattern of it being used like this by perpetrators is found in research from across the world, including the United States, Spain, Italy, Australia and New Zealand. It is also seen here in the United Kingdom. Survivors who directly contacted me have described this happening, and their experiences are echoed in the reports of organisations such as Women’s Aid, front-line services, and survivor campaigners. Dr Adrienne Barnett, a leading expert from Brunel University, has studied child contact cases in England and Wales, and found that 50% of the cases she looked at which involved allegations of parental alienation also involved domestic abuse allegations. Yet researchers and survivors tell us that if children are alienated, this is almost always interpreted by the courts as evidence of manipulation and parental alienation, and never as the alternative: that the parent has been abusive and alienated the child through their own actions.
These findings are confirmed by the Ministry of Justice’s expert panel review, which reported in June 2020. It warned that the pro-contact culture of the courts makes them receptive to accusations of parental alienation whenever concerns over child safety are raised. Alarmingly, parental alienation is then taken more seriously than allegations of domestic abuse. The expert panel made a number of recommendations which are in the process of being considered and implemented, but it is safe to say that this amendment would have a negative impact on this work.
Above all, we must not overlook the impact on children. On the basis of discredited science, children are being forced to live with abusers. Indeed, the theory and practice of parental alienation run counter to many of the advances that have been made in recent years, and in this Bill, when it comes to children and abuse. We increasingly recognise the importance of the voice of the child, and that children are victims of domestic abuse in their own right, and not just as bystanders. Yet the concept of parental alienation strips them of all agency and denies that they can really be suffering harm as a result of abuse—that suffering must be something dreamed up by their mother; an idea with which they have been brainwashed.
Nobody denies that there may be cases where abuse is falsely alleged, or where parents try to control their children’s affections. But it is already the job—the daily bread and butter—of the courts to determine whether allegations are true or not. In so far as there is genuinely abusive behaviour covered under the vague label of parental alienation, it would be covered by the much tighter and better evidenced concept of coercive control. Introducing parental alienation into the mix does not safeguard against abuse or protect against some heinous crime; it allows an allegation of a discredited concept to have equal or even greater weight than an allegation of domestic abuse, which we know is associated with significant harm to children.
The definition of domestic abuse in this Bill will be critical for improving responses for survivors and children experiencing domestic abuse. It is vital that it does not include concepts without a robust basis in evidence. There is no convincing evidence for theories of parental alienation. There is evidence, however, that they are used to counter domestic abuse allegations and that they risk causing great harm to survivors of domestic abuse, including children. I hope that my noble friend will consider withdrawing her amendment.
My Lords, I think we may have the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, back again. Perhaps she would like to continue with what she was saying.
Taking this into consideration, it is clear that these amendments are designed to ensure that, if one parent alienates a child from the other, this may be treated as a form of domestic abuse based on a clear definition of parental alienation. The amendments have at their heart the prime consideration of the child’s welfare, consistent with the Cafcass definition. However, such an allegation must take into account the child’s perspective of the situation, not just that of both parents. Children’s voices of concern for, or fear about, a parent must be considered when making arrangements for access with either parent.
Sometimes it is appropriate to cease access between a child and parent for the child’s protection and well-being. However, should that parent receive help and become more stable—perhaps in their personal health and well-being—access to their children should be reconsidered and attempts made to establish some level of relationship, subject, of course, to the child’s welfare being paramount.
These amendments are designed to enable such an approach. The UK Parental Alienation Study of 2020, conducted by Good Egg Safety CIC, involved 1,500 parents, almost half of whom had not seen their children in the previous six months. It is quite a sobering thought for many of us who are parents that, in some instances, family separation can be deeply harmful and could cause significant long-term harm to children. For these reasons I support the amendments.
My Lords, I take a moment to praise the powerful speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, with which I entirely concur.
As a Green, being lobbied from a wide variety of perspectives on the linked Amendments 2 and 4 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, the obvious place to start was with the evidence, so I asked the House of Lords Library for a survey of the peer-reviewed research. The conclusions of that evidence—the concern that the concept of parental alienation had been dangerously overdeveloped and overused—were clear. An entire issue of the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law is dedicated to this subject. The introduction states that,
“experts in the field of domestic and family violence have expressed serious concerns regarding the recourse to the concept of parental alienation by family court and child protection services. In the context of domestic and family violence, women may have well-grounded reasons to want to limit father-child contact … However, with a ‘parental alienation’ lens, women’s and children’s concerns are likely to be seen as invalid and as a manifestation of the mother’s hostility and alienating behaviours.”
That quote, and my views, reflect the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and I also associate myself with her concerns about the current uses in the courts. I support her call for the removal of the reference to parental alienation in the draft statutory guidance for the Bill. That is not the conclusion of just one journal; it is reflected in other articles in a range of journals, including the Family Court Review, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, and the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.
The introduction from the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, is an atypical account. The whole basis of claims of parental alienation is, in general, highly gendered. It claims that what women are saying cannot be trusted and relied upon. The pervasiveness of this was also evident in the conclusions of the brilliant Cumberlege report into medical devices and practices causing harm mostly to female patients and their concerns not being listened to.
That is the evidence, but I also want to go to fundamental principles. I believe in trusting individuals, in believing their capacity to make choices and decisions for themselves. That is a foundation of Green political thought. Inherent in the claims of parental alienation is the assumption that children can be turned against one parent by another, an assumption reflecting the hypodermic syringe theory of communication: that a message delivered will be 100% absorbed, believed and acted upon. This is a false consciousness argument, a claim that people do not understand their own circumstances and situations. Trusting individuals includes trusting, and listening to, children. Failure to do that has been a huge issue in many recent, tragic child sexual abuse scandals.
Votes at 16 is a long-term Green Party policy, but I regularly speak to school and community groups much younger than that who have very clear views and understandings that they have developed by themselves, through thought, research and consideration. The exam-factory model of schooling, to which successive Governments have been so attached, has not succeeded in destroying this. I believe very strongly that children need to be consulted and listened to by the courts and professionals when decisions are being made about their lives.
This brings me finally to acknowledge that we are all shaped by our own lives and experiences and should be open about and declare them. There is no such thing as an unbiased observer—in science, social science or politics. I know about this from personal experience. As a child, I was subjected to an attempt by a grandparent to alienate me from other members of my family. I rejected that, turned against it, understood what was being done to me and resisted from a very young age. In today’s debate, I will be listening to and relying on the peer-reviewed evidence, but also reflecting my own life understanding, in speaking against the inclusion of parental alienation in the Bill, because the whole approach fails to listen to women and children particularly and is not based on evidence.
My Lords, I begin with an apology: I was unable to take part at Second Reading of this important Bill, a Bill on which I, like others, congratulate the Government. Unlike much of our discussion and debate in this House, this is a real debate, with passionate views, strongly and sincerely held, being expressed on both sides of the argument.
I come to this from a background of 40 years as a constituency MP. Throughout that time, I held frequent and regular advice surgeries—at least a couple a month. I was always most distressed and least able to help when people brought their parental and marital difficulties to me. Whenever I saw people to discuss these things, I became convinced that, in almost every case, the victims were the children. When there is a separation or break-up of a marriage, long-term relationship or anything else, it is the children who always suffer, regardless of the “blame” attached to either side. Other noble Lords will have shared these experiences, which were the most difficult—indeed impossible—to resolve adequately, properly and fairly.
Some years ago, when I was in the United States with the Foreign Affairs Committee of another place, I met someone who felt passionately about this issue. In the margins of our meetings, she explained to me the cause that she was championing and gave me some of the details of why she was doing so. That person was the wife of our then American ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer, and is now our much-admired colleague in your Lordships’ House. She spoke today with passionate intensity; it was a very moving speech.
I was minded to say that I would of course support these amendments. I support so much of what is behind them, but I cannot ignore the powerful speeches from the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Helic, or from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, a few moments ago. I am very persuaded by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who knows perhaps more than any of us about marital problems and difficulties from her work in the family court. Although she spoke so briefly but movingly, this is something we must not dismiss.
I wonder whether the Bill is the right vehicle at the moment. I am not saying that I am persuaded that it is not; I shall talk and read more after today’s debate, but one body is frequently derided in the modern age: the royal commission. I wonder whether a royal commission to look into these things, to weigh the conflicting academic and other evidence, might not offer a positive and helpful way forward. There is no doubt that both my noble friends Lady Meyer and Lady Helic would be more than well equipped to give powerful evidence to such a body—as would others; we have all had representations on both sides of the argument.
There is nothing worse than polluting the mind of a child and weaponising and indoctrinating a child, particularly doing it with the intention of discrediting the other parent. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to enjoy very long marriages and see our children likewise enjoy long marriages have no real idea of just how devastating the sort of situation that my noble friend Lady Meyer described can be. We can only listen with sympathy and regard. We can empathise to the best of our ability, but we have not been there and we do not know that. However, I think that it would be very sensible for a royal commission to look into this. Royal commissions do not always have to, in the words of the late Lord Wilson, take minutes and sit for years. A small group of very experienced lawyers and others could pronounce on this in a fairly short timescale.
For the moment, I reserve my position on this amendment. I want to listen to what others say in this debate and when we come to Report, but I ask my noble friend who will reply from the Front Bench at least to reflect on the suggestion I have put forward and see whether it offers us a way to achieve what my noble friend Lady Meyer would have us achieve without some of the dangers talked about so powerfully by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and my noble friend Lady Helic.
I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lord Cormack, and I agree with him, but my overriding concerns are for children. As I stated at Second Reading, I warmly welcome the step that the Government made to ensure that the children of victims of domestic abuse are duly recognised in the definition. The moving and in many ways deeply tragic stories so compassionately told by my noble friend Lady Meyer are an important lesson for all of us as we embark on five days of debate on this vital legislation. Sadly, we will all have stories. We all know of situations and we all know people affected, but overridingly we need to find ways to put a stop to the cycle of abuse. That is why I have so much sympathy for the aims of my noble friend’s amendments. It seems pretty clear to me that a child who has experienced parental alienation should be included as a victim of domestic abuse.
Like many noble Lords, I have received many briefings and personal testimonies. One in particular that arrived in my in-box saddened me on this important issue of parental alienation. It is not good enough for opponents somehow to pretend that either it does not happen or, as my noble friend Lady Helic asserted at Second Reading, to refer to the concept of “so-called” parental alienation. As my noble friend Lady Meyer clearly outlined, it can and does happen, and it is sadly so much more than a concept.
I was contacted and told the following story: “I was the victim of domestic abuse in 2006. I and my two children, aged three and five months, left the family home with the help of Women’s Aid. The father has used coercive control consistently since then, calling the police and the social services to say that I am abusing the children. It is always completely unfounded. In 2013, he decided to terminate all contact. He reappeared last year, and has now completely alienated my precious, loving 15 year-old son.” The story continued.
We must not neglect children who are suffering from the absence of a beloved parent due to manipulation by another parent. My noble friend Lady Meyer is quite right to say that parental alienation is not an ideology or a concept. It is real. I will be interested if the Minister can explain why alienation does not fit into Clause 1(3), which refers to,
“physical or sexual abuse … violent or threatening behaviour … controlling or coercive behaviour … economic abuse … psychological, emotional or other abuse.”
Could paragraph (c) not read “controlling, alienating or coercive behaviour”?
My Lords, I, too, wish to commend the Minister on bringing this solid piece of legislation before the House and getting it to this stage. However, I rise to speak in support of these two amendments and commend those who tabled them and brought them before the House. I know the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, speaks with personal knowledge on this issue, having listened to her on another occasion and to what she has said today. When someone refers to their personal experience, I think it is always prudent, has a lot of merit and deserves a lot of close attention.
I want to address my comments today to the narrow issue of parental alienation. I am aware that this legislation applies primarily to England and Wales, not Northern Ireland. However, it is important that all parts of the UK are able to move forward with these protections as soon as possible. A gap in legislation was created when the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended. My DUP colleagues and I will support the amendment in the event of the Committee dividing. It would insert parental alienation into the definition of domestic abuse in Clause 1.
Sadly, we live in a society today where there are thousands of parents who do not have any relationship with their children, and in some of these cases simply because one parent, for no good reason, turned their child against them. This amounts to abuse and is debilitating. Parental alienation is a serious, deliberate manipulation of a child by one parent against the other parent. Of course, it can take many forms, including speaking negatively to the child about the other parent, reducing and controlling the child’s contact with the other parent, cancelling contact at the last minute and forbidding the child to talk about the other parent.
The effects can be life-changing. A child may believe that their parent is bad and dangerous. This can adversely affect a child’s mental health in later years. The child can be left bereft of the love, compassion and guidance of a parent. The alienated parent cannot share key milestones in their child’s life. I do not think it is possible to overstress the importance and influence of parents in their children’s life. Often by the time alienation has been proven through the courts it is much too late to encourage a child to see his or her other parent. Clinical depression, anxiety, fractured attachments, suicide ideation, deliberate self-harm, alcohol abuse, premature sexual activity and academic underachievement may have already occurred.
The sweeping generalisation that parental alienation is a concept being used by fathers as a tool to silence female victims of domestic violence is not accurate. There is a real risk that those advocating that position will neglect the needs of those men and women who do not have convictions for domestic violence or other offences but have been cut off from contact with their children and grievously miss them.
However, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not in any way seeking to challenge cases where a child has valid reasons for rejecting a parent, such as abuse or neglect, or where they have been unavailable to a child due to a prolonged period of addiction or of working overseas. My understanding of these amendments is that they are focused on situations where children become alienated through no fault of the affected parent, so it is critical that the Committee recognises that the harm caused in these cases is not restricted to abuse of a child. We should not ignore the fact that there is a range of motivating factors and circumstances involved in parental alienation, but I consider it appropriate to place it within the domestic abuse legislation as it victimises both parent and child.
I recognise and welcome that the Minister has already taken steps to classify parental alienation as an example of the psychological abuse in draft statutory guidance accompanying the Bill. On balance, however, I do not believe that this represents a level of protection or impetus that full legislative protection would provide.
My party, the DUP, has some concern around whether parental alienation will receive the attention it deserves in training and guidance on criminal behaviours without it being specifically stipulated as an offence in the Bill. Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly raised similar points during the development of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill. We must ensure that there is knowledge, understanding and application of domestic abuse law as it relates to parental alienation.
We are mindful that these amendments and the Bill in general would address only issues relating to parental alienation at the point at which harm has been caused. While it may dissuade such behaviour in the future, we also recognise that prevention and earlier and better support for parents—and between parents and children—are key to improving long-term outcomes for children and families. There is a need for better collaboration between health and justice departments right across the UK in respect of this and specific policies on alienation.
My Lords, I support the Bill. The mental and physical damage of domestic abuse goes far beyond the pain and anguish caused at the time it occurs and stays with the victims and their families for many years, if not for the rest of their lives. It is important that we do all we can in this legislation to help victims to get out of abusive relationships and rebuild their lives.
I speak to Amendments 2 and 4, which propose to add parental alienation to the definition of abusive behaviour and therefore to every provision of the Bill. I fear that the proposed amendments may undo much of the work that the Bill seeks to do to protect victims of domestic abuse by swinging the pendulum of control back to the perpetrator of domestic abuse, rather than the victim, in making counterallegations.
Without meaning to sound flippant, at its extreme, any parent going through a break-up or divorce could find themselves of accused of domestic abuse under the Bill, and that is not what the Bill is intended for. I wonder whether the concern of the noble Lords who tabled these amendments is already covered by the combination of Clause 1(3)(e) and Clause 1(5). Alternatively, if the noble Lords behind the amendments have a specific instance in mind, they should look at where that could be catered for in specific clauses, but not as a wholesale change to the entire Bill in this way.
I can see these amendments having massive unintended consequences if they are included. I urge the Committee to accept neither change, to maintain the integrity of the Bill.
My Lords, I speak to Amendments 2 and 4 on parental alienation. As the former Victims’ Commissioner, over the years, I have spoken to many domestic abuse victim survivors, and I have spoken about parental alienation. I know that this issue has been raised several times over many years from several parts of the country. No doubt like others in this House, I have been inundated with briefings and emails from domestic abuse organisations and victim survivors.
Most recently, we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and my noble friends, the domestic abuse commissioner, the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, and the London victims’ commissioner, Claire Waxman, who all say that they are very concerned about parental alienation. As we have heard, the domestic abuse commissioner is very concerned about giving perpetrators of domestic abuse a weapon to silence their victims in the family courts.
Submissions to a Ministry of Justice report last year made it plain that parental alienation is a barrier to victims of abuse. Current practices around parental alienation expose domestic abuse survivors and their children to further harm. Once again, silencing the victims of abuse and erasing the voice of children in the courts leads to their being regularly misunderstood or overlooked.
The criminal justice system and the justice system have been part of my DNA since 2007, so it does not sit comfortably with me to say that I also disagree with the amendments. However, hand on heart, I say to my noble friend Lady Meyer that her speech was very emotional, heartfelt and powerful. The justice system is a very lonely place to be. It still feels very lonely, clinical and unemotional and my voice is unheard as I go through it every day. I agree with my noble friend Lady Helic and the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Parental alienation creates a loophole. It poses a huge threat to the validity of the Bill and will ultimately expose the survivors to the very harm that the Bill is designed to prevent. That is why I cannot support the amendments and ask my noble friends to withdraw or not to move them.
My Lords, I am sympathetic to the amendments, with some caveats. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for her amendments, which are important for us to address. They may give us an insight into some of the broader issues of the Bill.
One point of emphasis in the legislation is the victim. Contemporary culture tells us that we should believe the victim. I understand that for those of us frustrated over the years that domestic abuse was not taken seriously as a heinous crime, and sometimes dismissed when reported, leading to tragic consequences, it seems reasonable to be victim-centred—to put the victim centre-stage. However, my concern is to ensure that due process is not neglected in this endeavour and that we have nuance when we discuss who is the victim.
We know from recent events, such as the egregious case of Carl Beech, that believing the victim per se can lead to false allegations with terrible consequences. In the context of domestic break-ups and family issues, sometimes when the bitterness of broken relationships centres, for example, on the custody of children—we have heard many examples here today—ironically, or sadly, accusations of domestic abuse itself can be deployed and weaponised to paint one party as a perpetrator and another as a victim, alienating the accused parent from their children, but without any proof of guilt; it is just an allegation.
However, that allegation or accusation of domestic abuse in that instance is a terrible stigma. Imagine that your mum or dad is labelled an abuser by the other parent. That can obviously lead to great pain and parental alienation, all without anyone’s guilt being proven. I just want to remind the Committee of the important principle of innocent until proven guilty and make sure that is not sidelined.
Ironically, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, claims that the very concept of parental alienation can be misused and lead to false allegations and, of course, she is right. But that is true of any piece of legislation, or any rule. Parental alienation can be falsely alleged but so can domestic abuse, but we do not suggest that we should not have legislation on that.
We might ask why in this debate we are so cynical and disbelieving of those who claim that they are victims of parental alienation. That seems very one-sided in a culture where we are told that we should believe the victims all the time. It is a reminder that claiming to be a victim is not proof and needs to be evidenced; that is not just in relation to the one issue of parental alienation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, tells us that fathers are the majority who claim parental alienation, and then seemed to imply that this was proof of the misuse of the concept by perpetrators. To be fair, that seemed to suggest that fathers were perpetrators of domestic abuse, which, as I say, is an accusation that goes too far for me. It reinforces my worry that there is a bias against one parent—often gendered—based less on evidence than on prejudice. I say that not as a men’s rights activist, as somebody accused me of being the other day when I made this point, but as a women’s rights activist who thinks that we should be fair in this discussion.
Despite all that, I am unsure about whether the resolution to my concerns, or even to the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, is to give parental alienation the statutory label of domestic abuse. Another of my issues—which I think is understandable—is that, in an attempt to broaden what constitutes domestic abuse from physical violence to include the likes of coercive control, I get concerned and wary of overexpanding the definition, because that can relativise the harm of serious abuse by conflating it with a range of behaviours that might occur when interpersonal relationships turn toxic.
Throughout Committee, I will be wary of criminalising behaviours that are subjective or disputed and areas where the law is not best suited to resolve it, and I am not sure where I fit in relation to parental alienation. Putting too much under the label of domestic abuse can ironically weaken the opprobrium that we attach to it, by making it a category that is too thinly stretched—a catch-all and not as useful as we would want it to be. Justice might be compromised and it might make it easier to weaponise domestic abuse as an accusation and deploy it against others.
I feel ambivalent about putting parental alienation into that ever-expanding label of domestic abuse, but I am wholly sympathetic to the arguments that accusing a partner or a carer of something like domestic abuse can be used maliciously. It does happen for other ends, and it is at great cost to family relationships and especially to children. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that parental alienation is not a discredited category but one she takes seriously, and that we can consider how we make it part of the Bill without expanding domestic abuse too broadly.
My Lords, I want to speak in support of Amendments 2 and 4 tabled by my noble friend Lady Meyer. I remember being horrified when I first heard her personal story, many years ago. But since then, I have learned and seen that this is not an isolated incident, unfortunately.
As we have heard, while there is no single definition of parental alienation, it is recognised by Cafcass as when
“a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is”,
“the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”
It has devastating impacts on the child, but is a form of abuse and control of the other parent and in line with emotional abuse of a controlling and coercive nature.
As I have listened to this debate unfold, I have thought back to the battle that has taken place over a long time to include coercion in our definition of domestic abuse, and to recognise children as victims. I hope that it does not take as long for us to wake up to include parental alienation.
No one wants their relationship to break down but, when it does, both parents are responsible for the healthy development of their child. This includes promoting a proper, loving relationship, which includes frequent, regular contact between the child, both parents and their extended families.
Alienation adversely affects the psychological development of a child, as it prevents a natural, healthy bond and relationship with a parent. A child needs to be nurtured and protected; that is especially true of a baby. At a time of total dependence, a mother’s physical and emotional presence regulates the baby’s fear response and overproduction of adrenaline and cortisol. Brain scans of toddlers who have experienced abuse and been deprived of emotional nurturing were shown to have disproportionately large and active limbic systems. As a result, these “fight or flight” hormones remain in the body and the child is in a constant state of anxiety and distress, not dissimilar to a soldier suffering from PTSD.
But it is equally important that the child has a relationship with their father. This is not a gendered issue. A major study in the Journal of Applied Economics, “The Impact of Income and Family Structure on Delinquency”, found that when interactions between a child and their parent broke down, and the perception and view of the other parent deteriorated, it was the child who suffered and transitioned to emotions of abandonment, alienation and a lack of trust, with both parent and child worse off.
There is no statistically significant difference between men and women as perpetrators and victims of parental alienation. Raising issues of gender discrimination to discredit the experience of many is not the way forward. But the effects on alienated parents, who lose the trust of their children and therefore their willingness to see them due to the actions of the other parent, are devastating.
There can be no doubt that judicial decisions in cases involving children must take account of all aspects of the family dynamic, including all types of abuse. This is crucial, as we have heard this afternoon. There is a need for qualified professionals to assist in court in assessing whether there is abuse, and if so its severity, and how it should affect child-parent residence and contact arrangements. But we also need to be mindful that children’s expressed wishes in court are not always their own. They do not always feel free to express their actual wishes, particularly when young, and they can be used as a weapon by an abusive parent.
Therefore, it is important that parental alienation is recognised in the Bill as a form of abuse, so that it can be identified and addressed.
My Lords, before I had the pleasure of meeting my noble friend Lady Meyer, I had read about the unbelievably distressing time she went through following the alienation of her children by their father. Today she has told us that story in the most moving way. I apologise for the fact that, as she is sitting behind me, she is seeing only my back rather than my front as I make this speech.
I admire my noble friend for all she has done to raise awareness of parental alienation through the setting up of her charity and getting the academic and judicial profession to realise that parental alienation needs to be recognised. Along with her, I want parental alienation recognised, but it must be tackled in law in the right way. Hasty law makes for bad law and will not elevate parental alienation to where we all want it. This important Bill must not become a Christmas tree on which we hang too much, which leads to minimising what it wants to achieve.
I cannot agree with the amendment to this Bill. Clause 1 sets out to define domestic abuse by listing different types of abusive behaviours, and not how they may be manifested. This is important, because to do this could be risky and give more weight to how a particular type of behaviour is displayed, and potentially ignore others. As many noble Lords have mentioned, the introduction of parental alienation into the Bill could have unintended consequences due to the absence of a common definition. Consequently, in a family court, cases of parental alienation could mean whatever the judge wants it to mean.
A child may form their own reasons for resisting contact, and there are cases where a parent, for no justified reason, restricts the other parent’s relationship with the child. These are two very different situations under the parental alienation label, which serves to validate the misuse of parental alienation and to obscure the tactics of perpetrators of domestic abuse.
Parental alienation needs to be looked into in its own right. This is now being done after too many years of misunderstanding, lack of clarity and muddle among the experts. My noble friend Lady Helic mentioned how the Ministry of Justice set up an expert panel and reported in June 2020. The panel made a series of recommendations, which I do not have time to go into here, to reform the child arrangement programme in family law. Leading on from this, the Government published an implementation plan for some of the recommendations. One recommendation said:
“A review of the presumption of parental involvement … is needed urgently in order to address its detrimental effects.”
In November, the Government announced an advisory group to begin this work. I welcome these initiatives and feel strongly that this is the way forward, to make sure that parental alienation gets the recognition it deserves.
I want my noble friend to get all she feels is necessary to have parental alienation recognised in law, but my fear is that adding her amendment to this Bill will have a detrimental effect on the work that is going on, and will minimise the importance of this appalling problem. We must make sure that parental alienation is put into legislation where it can be properly dealt with, and this Bill is not that legislation.
My Lords, this is such a difficult issue. This afternoon we have heard strong and cogent arguments on both sides. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for telling her heartrending story.
Parental alienation exists, if by that we mean that the parent with care seeks to alienate the child from the parent without care. One issue is that there is such a wide range of definitions, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Brinton. I saw it first-hand as an MP when I was involved with an organisation called the Association of Shared Parenting, formed by parents who were struggling to see their children after separation or divorce. It was based on the premise that most children benefit from contact with both parents, surely something with which no noble Lord in this House would disagree. The Association of Shared Parenting still exists, despite changes in family law, which I would have hoped would save it from needing to exist. Clearly, we need qualified professionals to assess what is going on. The bitterness of a break-up and the reluctance of the parent with care to continue the relationship through the child causes some parents to resist allowing contact by weaponising the child or poisoning their mind.
That is why I initially added my name to these amendments, but I have since removed it, because I do not believe that this is what we are talking about today. We are talking about cases in the criminal courts, not of divorce settlements necessarily but of domestic abuse. The problem with this amendment, which it took me some time to get my head around, is that the abused parent could actually be painted as the abuser. As Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, who has been quoted more than once already today, says:
“It puts victims of domestic abuse into the ridiculous position where, if they raise their abuse in the family courts, however well they have actually behaved, that can trigger unfounded allegations of parental alienation that could result in their children being placed with the abuser.”
“This attempt to turn the fact that the perpetrator has terrified their partner into a destructive criticism of that partner is typical coercive controlling behaviour.”
My noble friend Lady Brinton and the noble Baronesses, Lady Helic and Lady Newlove, the former Victims’ Commissioner, are absolutely right. With sympathy to all parents suffering the anguish of break-up, the interests of the child must be paramount. I do not envy the task of the family courts in resolving these cases. We must rely on properly trained experts to decide. On balance, I believe that allowing Amendments 2 and 4 would do more harm than good to victims and dilute the definition of domestic abuse in this Bill.
My Lords, this is a solid piece of legislation and I hope that the process on which we are embarking will make it better. I remind the Committee that I sit as a family magistrate in London, so I regularly deal with all types of family-related cases, including parental alienation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, gave a heartfelt speech; I found it very moving. She has clearly endured the most difficult of circumstances. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, gave closely, carefully and well-argued support of the amendments to which she put her name.
In family courts, as everyone has acknowledged, you quite often hear allegations of parental alienation, and a normal scenario is different from what we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer. A more normal scenario is that the parents are separated, the father has not seen the children for a while—too long—and he makes a private law application to see his children. The mother says there has been domestic abuse—or there have been allegations of domestic abuse—and the father makes a counter allegation, almost as a defence, saying that the mother is alienating the children against the father. That scenario is quite common. It is for the courts to try and sort it out, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, got it right when she said that both domestic abuse and parental alienation allegations can be either true or false. It is the job of the court process to sort that out.
I want to add two other observations. First, it is the duty of the court to get the best result for the child; we are not there to get a fair result for the parents. The question that we often ask ourselves is: “How do we get the voice of the child into the court?” One usual way of doing that is through Cafcass; there is an interview with a very experienced Cafcass officer who gives their view about what would be best for the child, and that view can be examined in the court. The way that Cafcass looks at these issues will be examined later in other amendments.
There is another way of doing it, which happens very rarely. I have not done it myself, but I have done it in public law cases, and that is where the child tells the court what they want. In the scenario where I was involved, a child was going to be taken into care by social services, and I have to say, it was extremely moving. The children whom I have done this for were well aware of the realities of the situation, and they were very aware that they were saying different things to the court—to me as the magistrate—than they had been saying to their parents. My experience is that children understand these situations; they can be toxic and extremely difficult, but nobody should underestimate children’s ability to understand the difficulty of their family situation.
I do not come down for or against these amendments, as such. It is a difficult situation. Other noble Lords made the point that there are many ways that parents can undermine and be unpleasant to each other that are not to the benefit of the children. One noble Baroness referred to the Bill as a potential Christmas tree of abusive relationships, and this does not help, because there are many varieties that one sees in court. Nevertheless, the central point I make to the Committee is that it is the court’s role to come up with the best solution for the child, not what is fair for the parents.
My Lords, first, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Meyer, who is right to highlight the protection of children. I acknowledge, empathise and sympathise with her terrible experience of parental abduction, which, as she said, led to her being alienated from her children for years. We know that domestic abuse has devastating consequences, not only for adult victims but for their children, which is why the Bill rightly recognises children as victims in their own right. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, pointed out, this is very much part of the court proceeding, as has also just been articulately outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. Some of the protections that have been outlined in the Bill, such as preventing cross-examination in courts, mitigate this in some ways.
I also agree with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in questioning the judicial training that must support the outcome of such proceedings, whatever it is. We know that child arrangement cases involving domestic abuse or allegations of abuse often include allegations of alienating behaviours, where one parent seeks to undermine or frustrate the other parent’s relationship with their children, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, also outlined. These actions, as my noble friend highlights in her amendment, are often referred to as “parental alienation”.
My noble friend Lady Helic, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, pointed out how the term has so often been used to sidetrack from the issue of domestic abuse. She pointed out that the pro-contact culture of the courts quite often leads to the wrong decisions being made.
To answer my noble friend Lord Polak, there is no widely accepted definition, nor a commonly held framework, for parental alienation. Instead, views are wide-ranging: some focus on the parent’s behaviour, some focus on the child’s behaviour and others focus on the impact or outcome of the behaviour. For these and other reasons, I refer instead to “alienating behaviours”. That phrase is used in the guidance, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Bennett, point out. The guidance will be subject to consultation after Royal Assent. The beauty of the House of Lords is of course its scrutiny of Bills. To that end, we very much welcome views on how to deal with this issue.
Alienating behaviours can include a range of attitudes and actions. Some are subtle, such as drip-feeding negative views, while others are more obvious, such as deliberately flouting child arrangement orders. I am clear that these behaviours are wrong and problematic, but they are not limited to cases involving domestic abuse. They occur in the context of acrimonious separation and other high-conflict cases, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. I have sympathy with my noble friend’s wish to address these behaviours, but I submit that the definition in Clause 1 for the purposes of the Bill is not the right context in which to do so.
Alienating behaviours should be considered primarily in terms of the impact on the child. Most noble Lords referred to that and to the potential emotional and psychological harm to the child that can result, for example, from repeatedly hearing negative views about a parent or being prevented from spending time with a parent. From the perspective of risk of harm to the child, the relevant legal framework is provided for in Section 1 of the Children Act 1989, together with the Section 31(9) definition of harm in that Act.
I accept that alienating behaviours can, in some circumstances, be indicators or manifestations that point to a wider pattern of psychological or emotional abuse. To be absolutely clear, I do not accept that alienating behaviours should be defined as domestic abuse in their own right. However, in circumstances where such behaviours are indicative of a wider pattern of emotional or psychological abuse, we can be confident that the Clause 1 definition already applies and renders the proposed amendment unnecessary.
Our approach in Clause 1 is to define domestic abuse by reference to different types of abusive behaviours and not by reference to the form in which those behaviours may be expressed or manifested. If we were to include within the Clause 1 definition a list of possible indicators under each type of abuse, we would risk appearing to give more weight to one form of behaviour and therefore creating a hierarchy of behaviours. Should a particular indicator or manifestation of psychological or emotional abuse not be listed, it may be deemed to be less serious or, worse, not a form of abuse at all.
The arena in which we can most effectively address alienating behaviours as potential indicators of a recognised type of domestic abuse is the statutory guidance under Clause 73, which has been published in draft. I have gone through how that will be consulted on. It has been created and continues to be edited in consultation with the sector. As I said earlier, we welcome further suggestions on how the guidance can be further strengthened, including in the area of alienating behaviours. Once the Bill is enacted, the Home Secretary will formally consult the domestic abuse commissioner and other key stakeholders before the guidance is promulgated.
I note the points by my noble friends Lady Gardner of Parkes and Lady Chisholm that the unintended consequences might be to swing the pendulum of this good Bill the other way. My noble friend Lady Newlove warns of parental alienation creating a loophole in which to perpetrate abuse. I give the final word to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, who warns that, if these amendments are accepted, victims might be painted as abusers.
I hope that, in the light of this explanation and our commitment to address alienating behaviours in the statutory guidance, my noble friend Lady Meyer can withdraw her amendment.
I have received a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale.
My Lords, I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak after the Minister. I did not submit my name for the speakers’ list for this group because I could not rely on the train from Scotland getting me here on time, but I am delighted that I managed to make it in time to hear the powerful and important speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer.
When I first saw this amendment at the end of last week, unaware as I was then that it would become perhaps the most controversial and debated issue of our first day in Committee, I flinched. I understand the motivations behind it and there have been powerful speeches on both sides of the debate, but I fear that the Bill’s purpose, which we celebrated earlier this month at Second Reading—to empower victims of domestic abuse to be confident enough to deal with their circumstances, and to ensure that perpetrators are properly punished—would be undermined by the amendments. These amendments could disempower victims of domestic abuse and therefore run contrary to the rest of the Bill.
On reading the amendment on Friday morning, I immediately imagined a situation where a woman is about to flee the home, even temporarily, and the man says, “But under the Domestic Abuse Act I will pursue you for alienation.” A very high proportion of women facing that situation would stay where they were out of an additional fear, on top of all the fear they already experience. I will not tell my personal story here, but I can absolutely assure noble Lords that this happens and this would happen. We should hesitate and think very carefully about this issue in advance of accepting an amendment of this sort.
I was persuaded by the powerful cases made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Helic, but particularly by the wise words of the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, spelling out the need to take time over this issue, to consider it carefully, and to do the right thing for the victims of domestic abuse and the children who might be affected. For that reason I think the Government have the balance right by not including alienation in the Bill, but by referring to it in the draft statutory guidance. I therefore support the Minister’s submission.
I agree with the noble Lord’s very balanced view. It is absolutely right that we do not undermine what is very good legislation by acting in haste and regretting at leisure. The case study the noble Lord outlined was in the back of my mind as well.
My Lords, I have made so many notes that I do not know where to start. I thank all those who spoke very kindly, particularly those who support my amendments. Listening to the people who oppose them was really interesting. It made me realise how some people are quite misinterpreting their purpose. They are not about disarming women confronted by abusive men—quite the opposite; I am such a woman. False accusations are quite a different issue.
As I mentioned, it is for the courts to decide in their investigation or fact-finding hearings whether a situation is parental alienation, purposefully done by one parent using the child as a tool against the other. I do not know whether noble Lords can imagine how that feels. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said that she was in a situation like that, but it probably was not very much; it was probably a grandmother telling her that her mother was not very nice. However, many children are indoctrinated. Some people talk about children being in a cult, being constantly and continuously indoctrinated by being told that the other parent and the other family are bad. Those children live in fear of the disapproval of the parent who is alienating them.
The point I am trying to make is that parental alienation is about control; it is about one parent wanting to control the other. This is coercive behaviour. We might regret refusing to include parental alienation in the Bill because we would put children most at risk. My noble friend Lady Helic said that there is no data to prove parental alienation. I believe that there is, because many people are talking about it and are worried about it being used in some cases. Thousands of studies have been done, and I can gladly send them to the Minister. Noble Lords talked about Dr Gardner, who has been dead for 20 years. He was talking about parental alienation syndrome, but things have moved on since then. The fact that he came up with one idea that was then, properly, rejected does not mean that all the other research done afterwards is invalid.
I understand that some people feel very strongly that this is misused, but I go back to the point that it would be up to the courts. That is why we have courts and why, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, it is very important for more judges to understand what parental alienation is about. This is why we have Cafcass, and why this is recognised and in law in many countries. I do not know why we are having such a strong debate against it here. It fits in the Bill because it is used against one parent. Imagine being the parent against whom it is used: you are in a terrible position because your child dislikes you, he objects to seeing you and you cannot force the situation because you will upset him even more. It is a very efficient way to control one parent.
Lastly, the guidance will not help judges because it is not statutory. If parental alienation is just in the guidance it will not help to solve the issue earlier on.
I hope that the Minister and her department can talk with me about parental alienation to find another way to include it somewhere in the Bill—not in the guidance, but somewhere more prominent—and to make it clear that this is not anything to do with gender. I very much fear that this whole debate against parental alienation and a lot of stuff in the Bill are gender biased; there are male victims. I am talking here about children. I hope the Minister will accept discussing this further, so that we can find another way to include it in the Bill.
At this time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, but I look forward to coming back to it at the next stage.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 3. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
3: Clause 1, page 2, line 1, at end insert—
“(f) unreasonable prevention or threat of prevention of dissolution of a religious Jewish marriage via a religious bill of divorce (a “get”);”Member’s explanatory statement
This specifically itemises one spouse unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage with a ‘get’ as being within the scope of the Bill by bringing it under the definition of abusive behaviour.
My Lords, I shall speak also to my other amendments in this group—Amendments 5, 168, 169 and 170, which all relate to the same issue.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Palmer, who have added their names to the amendments, providing cross-party support. I also thank my noble friends the Ministers, who have been so generous with their time in meeting Peers to discuss the amendments and other issues relating to the Bill, and indeed for their passion for, and dedication to, improving the support and recognition of victims of domestic abuse.
This set of amendments is designed to address a specific type of abuse that mostly affects religious Jewish women, and I declare an interest as one. This issue has long been of concern to me and to many other religious Jews in this country and worldwide. Our aim with the amendments is to help victims who are unable to leave a failed marriage because their spouse unreasonably decides to prevent them moving on with their life in accordance with Jewish religious law.
I stress at the outset that the amendments are specifically designed to refer only to Jewish religious divorce, with no intention of impacting on procedures relevant to any other religion. Jewish law, of course, governs Judaism, and there is no intention to undermine the role of the Jewish courts. The amendments are intended to offer a means of helping those impacted by a particular type of abuse that can arise in some cases in this country under Jewish laws of divorce.
I also stress that the majority of Jewish divorces proceed smoothly and British Jewish wives can move on with their lives once their civil divorce is finalised. However, sadly, there are some instances where a husband, sometimes demanding money to improve a divorce settlement agreed in the civil courts, sometimes driven by a desire to punish or control their ex-wife and sometimes to continue emotional abuse that existed in the marriage, unreasonably refuses to grant the get—the Jewish bill of divorce—leaving the wife married to him in the eyes of Jewish law, even if she wishes to be free.
The amendments seek to protect and support Jewish women—it is, I am afraid, usually women—whose husbands do not willingly sign the Jewish divorce document, the get. A get can be secured only if a man initiates it and the woman agrees—it cannot be initiated by the woman—so it is intrinsically biased in favour of the husband and is, sadly, open to abuse. This is a Jewish legal document that must be approved by the rabbinical court, known as the beth din, which literally means “House of Judgment”, and it allows a couple to divorce by mutual consent. However, a get is legally valid in Jewish religious law only if approved by the beth din, and this normally requires the rabbinical judges to be satisfied that it has been agreed voluntarily.
Those worst affected by an unreasonable refusal to grant a Jewish religious divorce can effectively be kept chained in the marriage for decades as their husbands prevent them being able to marry anyone else or have children accepted under Jewish religious law. As noble Lords can imagine, this situation causes immense distress to the women, who are known as agunot, which can be translated as “chained wives”.
Of course, ultimately, it is up to the religious authorities to make decisions about religious Jewish divorce, and there is an entire legal framework governing all aspects of Jewish life which dates back to biblical law. These amendments cannot interfere with the rulings of the religious courts. Nevertheless, with this Bill being such a huge advance for our country and offering our citizens better protection and support against abuse, I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will agree that these victims should also be entitled to the protection that will be available. The amendments specifically aim to address the plight of the abuse victims in such circumstances so that these citizens, who are subjected to such unreasonable, coercive and controlling behaviour, can access practical and emotional support, as provided under the Bill.
Amendment 3 would add the unreasonable refusal to grant a get as a recognised form of domestic abuse in British law. It would specifically enshrine in this legislation that a spouse unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage with a get was brought within the scope of the Bill as committing a defined form of abusive behaviour.
Amendment 5 stipulates that a spouse impeding the dissolution of a religious Jewish marriage can be considered to be acting in a controlling, coercive, threatening or abusive manner to their partner for the purposes of the Bill.
I stress that the amendments are not designed in any way to reduce the ability of the Jewish religious court to apply Jewish law and, in particular, the provisions of the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002, which was a welcome step forward in helping those chained women and had the support of the much-missed Lord Sacks and the London Beth Din. The 2002 Act means that a judge can refuse to grant a decree absolute to a Jewish wife whose husband has not agreed to provide a get, but that has not stopped the problem of chained wives.
A civil divorce will not substitute for a get, no matter how long the wife and husband are separated. If their relationship was abusive to begin with, this is a way in which the man can continue that abuse and continue to exert control over his wife with impunity. In Jewish law, any relationship with another man would be considered adultery and any children that this woman had would be considered illegitimate, damaging their lives as religious Jews.
Jewish religious women in this position cannot move on with their lives, being forced by their husbands into a situation of limbo and powerlessness for years or decades, even missing out on their child-bearing years. Of course, I hugely regret that this remains an issue which the rabbinical authorities have not been able fully to overcome on behalf of religious Jewish women, but I understand and fully respect that these are difficult points of Torah, Talmudic and Mishnaic law, and would not presume to have the legal knowledge to address the situation.
I am also aware that there is huge sympathy among the Jewish rabbinate for those affected. However, I hope that the Bill and our suggested amendments can help to provide support and possibly further encouragement or assistance for Jewish religious women in that position.
I shall briefly address the other amendments in this group. Amendment 168 seeks to amend Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. This Act’s introduction of the new criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate family relationships was a very positive step in recognising and responding to this form of abuse, which has a devastating impact on victims’ lives. The amendment would specifically ensure that unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage is included in the definition of that offence. It would add after subsection (5):
“For the purposes of subsection (2)(a),”
that if parties remain married under Jewish religious law, even if civilly divorced, they should be
“regarded as being connected in an intimate personal relationship.”
This would apply because they remain legally married under Jewish law and he still holds sway over her, whether or not they live together.
Amendment 169 says that the Secretary of State’s guidance relating to Clause 1 of this Domestic Abuse Bill or Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 must recognise
“unreasonably preventing dissolution of a religious Jewish marriage”
against the wishes of the other partner as “controlling or coercive” behaviour. In these sad cases, coercive control commonly continues post-separation; we wish to ensure that the offence is recognised as extending, even when the couple is not living together. Economic abuse in connection with a get is also a form of coercive control that can be used post-separation, sometimes leaving victims with significant debts from trying to achieve their get, but we believe it should be included as an offence. It is not covered under the other offences such as stalking or harassment.
Amendment 170 stipulates that a court must take into account unreasonably impeding religious Jewish marriage dissolution when considering whether this is domestic abuse, and thus whether an offence has been committed under Section 76 or 76A of the Serious Crime Act, or whether domestic abuse support should be provided under Clause 55 of this Bill.
I thank the prospective domestic abuse commissioner, whose helpful briefing for Peers ahead of Committee welcomed these proposed amendments, stating the desire to ensure that the rights of Jewish women to end their religious marriage are included as part of the statutory definition on the grounds of domestic abuse by way of controlling and coercive behaviour, psychological abuse and economic abuse, where it is also a factor, as specified in these amendments.
I hope that the Government will engage further with us on these amendments to ensure, either by way of the amendments themselves or perhaps by secondary legislation or statutory guidance, that these victims can be included when considering domestic abuse in this country. They are not intended to set any precedent for any other religion’s marriage or divorce procedures; I hope that they will add further encouragement for recalcitrant religious Jewish husbands to free their former wives to continue their lives, and provide recognition of these women’s victimhood as well as support.
As legislators, we have a duty to do our utmost to protect those trapped in this way. As well as providing support to the victims, characterising the situation in British law as domestic abuse or criminal behaviour may be of assistance to the rabbinic courts. We hope that they will work with us to find a better resolution to this terrible agunah problem. I beg to move.
My Lords, like the other stories lying behind the need for this Bill, this set of amendments reveals a shameful story. I am pleased to support this group of amendments and to support the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. There could be as many as 100 women at a time caught in this situation who are known to the religious courts. It is not uncommon for women to secure their release by paying sums extorted from them by acts comparable to blackmail. The grant of the get can be used by the husband as leverage. A recent case involved a woman paying her ex-husband £50,000 for her freedom after 15 years of being chained; others have cost similar five-figure sums. It is reported that more abuse occurs nowadays than previously, perhaps connected to higher divorce rates and higher financial obligations imposed by secular courts. It is true that a religious divorce needs the woman’s agreement as well, but her refusal can be overridden by a religious court whereas a man’s cannot. Noble Lords can imagine what we women think of this and the lack of respect we have for the rabbinic authorities who manage to find all sorts of loopholes in religious law but not in this one.
It is embarrassing to have to turn to secular law for relief. The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 allows parties to ask a judge to delay a decree absolute until a religious divorce is finalised, but this law is ineffective if the husband does not care about getting a civil divorce. Then there is the Serious Crime Act 2015, Section 76, which is referred to in the amendment too. In the circumstances of a get refusal, there have been prosecutions launched against wholly unreasonable and controlling husbands under that section, which created the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Withholding the get fits well within that section. It is not, however, retrospective, and a person bringing a private prosecution has to be prepared to foot the bill for their legal costs. The section needs the proof of intent to cause fear of violence or serious distress. The cases about the get brought under this section never came to court because, once the husband had been served with the charge, he caved in. The result is that there is no precedent that this section can in fact be used where a get is withheld.
So why will the potential of Section 76 not suffice for the cruel treatment that has been described? The answer is that there would be advantages to dealing with unreasonable withholding of the get in the domestic abuse setting rather that of the Serious Crime Act. The use of a domestic abuse protection notice or order would open the door to a range of support for the victim. It also would mean that, rather than a criminal procedure, the perpetrator—usually, but not always, the husband—will be subject to a civil preventive measure, the notice, not a finding of guilt. A domestic abuse protection order can contain appropriate conditions, and must not conflict with the perpetrator’s religious beliefs. It is important that a domestic abuse order or notice be perceived as less coercive than a criminal conviction under the Serious Crime Act 2015. This is because a strict interpretation of the orthodox Jewish law requires that the husband be not directly coerced into giving the get; it has to be voluntary, as is widely understood. I am not defending this for a moment but, for those for whom the correct religious forms are important, and bearing in mind the impact on their present and future families, a domestic abuse protection notice or order would be a lifeline in secular and religious terms.
I support this set of amendments, which define the unreasonable withholding of a get as abusive behaviour; that is, when one spouse acts in a way which is controlling, coercing or threatening, or abusing the other spouse’s normal civil liberty of being able to remarry and have children in accordance with her beliefs. I hope that this House and the Government will extend a helping hand and free these unfortunate women.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 3, 5, 168, 169 and 170. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Altmann on her excellent introduction. I am delighted that my Government are putting forward this Bill and its attempt to provide as comprehensive as possible a set of arrangements relating to domestic abuse; it has my strong support. I am particularly grateful to the Ministers, my noble friends Lady Williams of Trafford and Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, for their willingness to engage.
To be clear, as my noble friend Lady Altmann said, the majority of cases of Jewish divorce are completed without too much difficulty; in the Orthodox community, they are handled by a beth din, and the judges—or dayanim—of the beth din ensure that all provisions of Jewish law are fully and appropriately adhered to. However, there are far too many cases where a man with ill intent can frustrate the process with potentially devastating ramifications for his spouse and, of course, his children. These amendments are clearly being proposed to ensure that victims of domestic abuse or coercive behaviour have full access to the provisions of the Bill. The amendments do not reduce the court’s existing ability to allow the religious courts to apply halacha—Jewish law—or, in particular, the provisions of the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002, which had the support of Lord Jakobovits, Lord Sacks and the London Beth Din.
As a practising member of the modern orthodox community, let me be absolutely clear: I am not remotely qualified to make statements on behalf of anyone, and certainly not on behalf of the beth din. However, I acknowledge that the beth din of the United Synagogue should be commended on the efforts it has made to limit the number of agunot—chained women. It has recently and rightly taken out adverts in the Jewish press that name and shame Jewish men who have refused to give a get, but sadly there is still so much more to do. However, these are overriding matters for the religious authorities and they should continue their own deliberations, although I believe that there may be scope for the Minister, my noble friend Lord Wolfson, to explore potential opportunities with the beth din going forward.
While the amendments do not create any new provisions that currently cannot be exercised through existing legislation, it can be argued that the reasons for adding these measures to the Bill are that they will make access to its provisions easier and more timely, thus potentially reducing the cost burden, while the agunah—the chained woman—can more speedily gain the ability to remarry or to lead a normal life without the stigma associated with her position. In addition, these women can access sources of support that will be made available by this important Bill.
I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister to consider supporting these amendments. They are specific, limited in scope and, as has been said, should not set precedents that relate to any other form of religious marriage or divorce in other religious traditions. I urge my noble friend the Minister to confirm that the Government are willing to engage with the proposers and supporters of these amendments to ensure that such important measures can be addressed, at the very least, in the statutory guidance.
My Lords, I shall speak in support of Amendments 3, 5, 168, 169 and 170. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for proposing these amendments and I applaud the compelling case that she made in her speech. I also thank all colleagues for their thoughtful comments and support for these measures which, as I say, I strongly support.
It is good to see the Minister in his place and ready to respond to the amendments. I am sure he is aware that it was his head of chambers, my noble friend Lord Grabiner, who introduced the Bill that became the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 with the support of the then Government. These amendments come firmly from that tradition and the approach of successive Governments to these matters. The 2002 Act has been valuable, but, alas, the position of so many women who are caught in this situation continues to be a source of great anxiety. These measures would give real benefit and relief, not only to the women who are so chained but to the men who wish to marry them and, most importantly, to the health and well-being of any children caught up in this awful situation. I would like to pay tribute to Jewish Women’s Aid, GETTout and the many legal experts and professionals who have done so much for those too many who have been caught in this awful position.
These amendments do not seek to legislate on what I consider to be essentially matters of religious doctrine and custom. They do not seek to involve the civil courts in questions of Jewish religious law. In fact, these provisions would provide greater flexibility for the courts to apply matters so as to ensure a greater appreciation of religious law and those involved in it. Her Majesty’s judges have proved to be able to deal very effectively with these issues, and I am sure that the beth din of today will be able to do so too, as indeed it has since 1866 when the then Government told the Chief Rabbinate that it no longer had the sole or main right to determine marriage or divorce in the United Kingdom.
What these measures will do, most importantly, is support the person who in adverse circumstances is the most powerless, vulnerable and likely to be experiencing coercive or abusive behaviour. There has been a tendency in this debate to raise grounds for criticising rabbis for not getting a grip on the problem, but it is important to recognise that religious law is biblical in origin and therefore seen to be immutable. Changes in practice and interpretation are very hard to achieve, most notably in the orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities, especially in the absence of any central parliament and in the context of so many different traditions. In my opinion, their position must be understood.
Under our civil law, the process of divorce is straightforward and gender neutral. Neither party can control or manipulate the process, and once the conditions for divorce are satisfied, the divorce is granted. Jewish law is different, because it is gendered and allows the man to control the proceedings. There is a degree of mutuality, but, fundamentally, the process provides for the male to be able to make the final determination and empowers the religious courts with the ability to overrule women. Central to this is the place of the man to be judged as being able to make a decision under religiously defined obligations of “free will” or “free from coercion”. It is a definition absent of responsibilities, or even adherence to common accepted principles of right or wrong.
Unfortunately, these established rules of religious law sometimes bring out the worst in people. On these occasions, the giving of the get may be used as a tactical device or a weapon of blackmail in relation to the ancillary arrangements for the children of the marriage and the financial settlement made in connection with the civil divorce. Alternatively, a refusal to deliver a get may be motivated simply by malice or spite that is in turn driven by jealousy or some other, perhaps understandable but nevertheless objectively unreasonable, purpose. We have to place the needs of the victims at the centre and, as with this important Bill, rebalance our approach to deal with the needs of the victim.
Of course, the job of the beth din is not straightforward and should be recognised as being complex, and is, I am sure, as sensitive as it is agonising. We must avoid getting involved in its processes and matters that offend religious law and focus on helping the victims. In doing this—and this is why these amendments are so important—I will illustrate the predicament of victims through three real-life examples.
The first is of a woman who had been divorced in the civil court, but is still waiting for her get after five years. On finally securing an appointment with the religious court to receive her get, it was made conditional upon her signing to agree a financial settlement of £150,000 less than that awarded by the civil court, and being forced to sign a document relinquishing any ownership of the joint properties. She was encouraged by the beth din to accept the offer as a legitimate way to secure her get, but she did not choose to do so.
Another example is of a woman who has been waiting 20 years for her get, and whose estranged husband has left the religious community, so it has no hold over him. This, and the effect of years of emotional and violent abuse during the marriage, continues to blight her life.
A third woman’s husband was being prosecuted for the sexual abuse of children. In trying to secure her get, she was asked, including by presiding members of the religious court, to lie to the police and tell them that the accusations had been fabricated, so that she could be given her religious divorce. Additional financial sums were requested. The husband made further demands that were impossible for the wife to fulfil, such as clearing his name of all convictions and expunging references on the internet. The woman had non-molestation and restraining orders against her husband, but, nevertheless, she was subjected to a campaign of harassment at home, in the street and through the posting of offensive and abusive messages on social media. The perpetrators have not been easy to identify, nor has there been any co-operation in the investigations. While the beth din expressed sympathy with her plight, there was no movement on the securing of the get.
Not every matter can be resolved easily and not every situation will fall into neat boxes with regard to the roles that either the religious or civil courts can play. It is therefore essential that we take this opportunity to level the playing field and make sure that we give the support to victims that these amendments would provide. Their objective is to enshrine the right of Jewish women to secure their get where it is being withheld by a recalcitrant ex-husband in order to exert control over the woman. Having a specific inclusion for victims of this kind of coercive behaviour, psychological abuse and often economic extortion would be valuable to those women who may have secured a civil divorce but are not considered to be divorced within the Jewish religion. It is in line with the key objective of the Bill, which is to raise awareness and understanding of domestic abuse and its impact on victims. The provisions categorise domestic abuse as conduct whereby one party seeks to compel the other to remain in a marriage against their will and uses an existing religious structure to perpetuate abuse and exert control.
There is a provision in law for the withholding of a civil divorce if a husband does not give a get, but in abusive cases, husbands are often in no rush to obtain a civil divorce, and with the bulk of the matrimonial assets and resources often being in their sole name, they are content to remain married without the final separation under way in the civil court.
While the Jewish religious courts have introduced communal and social sanctions with some degree of effectiveness, they are severely limited by having weak enforcement capabilities. This is why the law needs to go further to protect victims of this kind of coercive control and mental cruelty.
Women in this position must be entitled to the support afforded to other victims of domestic abuse under the Bill, whereby unreasonably refusing to grant a religious divorce means an act or pattern of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape, and regulating their everyday behaviour. That is the absolute definition of coercive control.
It is important to bear in mind that for women who experience get refusal, it is highly likely that that is just one of many abusive behaviours perpetrated against them, often escalating over the course of several years. Sustained domestic abuse serves to humiliate, degrade and slowly remove a woman’s sense of self, severely limiting her wherewithal to advocate for herself. Many women in this position have explained the trauma and absolute desperation it creates, and the fact that they have no way of legitimising their concerns. In some cases a man uses the imbalance of power in his favour simply out of spite—perhaps out of dissatisfaction with the way the civil marriage ended, or with the financial settlement afforded him by the courts.
In other cases, a man may have mental health issues—commonly a personality disorder. In one example, a young woman, A, converted to Judaism and at 19 married a man, B, who quickly became physically and sexually abusive, as he suffered from bipolar disorder, of which she had been unaware during their short courtship. She left him after less than a year, but six years later remained in limbo, unable to marry within the religion she had chosen.
These amendments would provide the opportunity to ensure that the provisions and protections were available to all, and specifically to recognise the plight of these women, removing the shadow of abuse and control. The law cannot restore their right to exercise their faith through their ability to remarry and have children within their faith, but these measures, in this Bill, can provide women with protection through the courts, and give them access to a domestic abuse protection order on the grounds of get prevention.
As noble friends have said, beth din-approved gets have been achieved by using the law, and these particular measures, more creatively and assertively, and in tandem with other steps. Nothing in the amendments makes a case for using them in the first instance, or even making them a normal feature of proceedings in Jewish law governing divorces, the overwhelming majority of which, as colleagues have said, pass easily. I am sure that such a prospect, of being urged to be in compliance, would be unnecessary and would raise deep concerns. But these measures need to be more readily available to support victims, so I hope that the Government are willing to support the amendments, as they are in the tradition of their own approach and of the important progress that the Bill offers.
My Lords, I first declare my interests as noted on the register; I think the relevant ones would be as a vice-president of the Jewish Leadership Council and as a long-standing member of the United Synagogue. I have signed all the amendments in this group, and I shall not refer to them individually. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for leading on them. She said that she was speaking as a religious Jewish woman, so I thought it might be appropriate for me to speak as a religious Jewish man. These problems, which mainly affect women, are well known in the Jewish community.
Noble Lords will notice that the amendments in this group have been signed by Peers from the Cross Benches, the Conservative and Labour Benches, and by myself on the Liberal Democrat Benches. When I speak in debates, it is not often that I agree with all four of the speakers immediately before me—maybe this is due to my bad nature—but tonight I do, and I pay tribute to the details that they have added to the debate.
The questions we are asking are: what is abusive behaviour, and what is coercive behaviour? We are saying that spouses should not unreasonably prevent the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage. Other noble Lords have mentioned the effects on the children of such marriages, and I shall expand a little on that. Previous amendments have said a lot about parental problems and responsibilities, but if no religious divorce—no get—is given, the children of that marriage cannot live separately with the divorced parent. Worse than that, the children of a marriage that is recognised in the civil courts but not in the Jewish religious courts are treated as illegitimate in the Jewish religion. What we need to do, if we can, is to use UK legislation to help those chained women.
Previous speakers have commented on recalcitrant husbands who demand to be paid off in order to give a get. We should do everything we can in UK legislation to give power to the women who have such problems. I would have given some examples, but the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, has already given some graphic ones, which I am sure will be well known to the Minister.
The five amendments in the group all cover the same issue: gittin—the plural of get—for Jewish women. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will say that there is hope that we will make progress on the amendments by Report. They are worthy amendments, and I trust that the Government will help the Jewish women who are, in the main, affected by these restrictions.
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation—and, I hope, an appropriate degree of sensitivity—to make some brief comments on a subject on which I have no great expertise. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, the Minister, for the time he gave me to discuss this topic last week.
The stories recounted by noble Lords can inspire only sympathy for the women caught in this terrible trap; that is completely understandable. However, I have a concern and a question. Although it has been stated several times that the amendments relate only to Jewish marriage and can have no consequences for other belief systems I am concerned that, without some additional wording, the general principle underlying them—that one has an obligation to collaborate in a divorce—might leak out into other systems. such as those in which one spouse may have a conscientious objection to the principle of divorce. I am thinking principally of Roman Catholics, but also of other denominations. If it were to be taken, either by analogy or by legal persuasion, that that principle made it a criminal offence not to collaborate in or expedite a divorce to which one party had a conscientious objection, that would be a matter that needed careful consideration.
Although I have every sympathy with the amendments, I believe that they need additional wording and protection, at the very minimum, to ensure that the consequences I have hinted at are not brought about in legal reality. I very much wish to hear what my noble friend the Minister and my noble friend Lady Altmann, who moved the amendment, have to say about that, so that we can be confident that the measures are as precisely focused as she intends.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as noted in the register. We very much want the Bill to recognise the realities of abuse that different communities face, and to make sure that it will work in practice for victims of all backgrounds, religions, disabilities and so forth. We hope that the Minister will work with the Peers raising issues and look into their concerns.
I pay tribute to the noble Lords who tabled the amendments for the very experienced and knowledgeable way in which they have highlighted this matter, to ensure that the rights of Jewish women to end their religious marriages and secure a get are included as part of the statutory definition of domestic abuse. This would be on the grounds of domestic abuse by way of controlling and coercive behaviour and psychological abuse, and of economic abuse where that is a factor.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said in her detailed opening speech, the amendment is intended to help women who are unable to leave a failed marriage, and is specific only to Jewish religious laws; there is no intention to undermine the Jewish courts. Including it in the Bill would provide the opportunity to ensure that its provisions and protections were applicable to all, and that it specifically recognised the plight of those women, removing the shadow of abuse and control, and restoring their right to exercise their faith through their ability to remarry and have children within their faith. That recognition would also offer them other protections under the Act, once the Bill is passed, if they were specifically included.
It is in line with a key objective of the Bill to raise awareness and understanding of domestic abuse and its impact on victims. Key is the ability of women to bring a case where they can retain control of the process as the victims, rather than as a witness in a prosecution having criminal sanctions as a civil party. Through tabling such an amendment, the issue can be usefully raised, and seeking legislative change could be ground-breaking for chained women.
This group highlights what so many noble Lords have been saying. The Bill must work for all victims, and to do this, it must grapple with the reality of how domestic abuse is experienced in all the different ways that it is by those living with it and those trying to escape it. I sincerely hope that the Minister can work with the noble Lords sponsoring this group of amendments to review this important issue and achieve a positive resolution.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to these amendments, particularly my noble friend Lady Altmann for her very good introduction. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, that it is not his noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar responding, but I know that he will be listening to every word I say and will correct me where I am wrong. I also thank him for some of the compelling stories that he outlined—some absolutely tragic cases which I know that all noble Lords will sympathise and empathise with. I thank all noble Lords who have engaged with me on this subject. It has been a real education for me, outlining the situations that some women find themselves in.
I will take these amendments one by one to address them properly. Amendments 3 and 5 would add a sixth limb to the list of behaviours in Clause 1(3) which count as abusive, namely the unreasonable refusal, or the threat thereof, to agree to the granting of a religious bill of divorce, or a get, which is necessary to dissolve a Jewish religious marriage. I am all too aware of the real hardship suffered by women refused a get by their husbands. As already outlined, such a woman is unable to remarry under the auspices of Orthodox Judaism. Furthermore, as a woman regarded in Jewish law as still being married, any children she goes on to have with another Jewish partner will themselves be severely restricted, as a matter of Jewish law, in who they are later able to marry. The term applied in Jewish law to such a woman, “agunah” or “chained”, is, as my noble friend Lady Altmann pointed out, both apt and tragic. I know that Jewish religious authorities are concerned about the problem, but they have not so far found a solution to it within Jewish religious law.
All too often this will be about the exertion of control by one spouse over the other, as noble Lords have pointed out. There could well be situations where the refusal of a get might constitute controlling or coercive behaviour, depending on the facts of an individual case, and this would sit better in the statutory guidance on domestic abuse provided for in Clause 73 than in the Bill.
The list of abusive behaviours in Clause 1(3) is deliberately drafted at a high level, to provide a clear and easily understandable summary of what constitutes domestic abuse. Including very specific circumstances in this list could lead to pressure to include other such circumstances, which would make the definition unwieldy. It could also create the impression that there is a hierarchy of abuse, which of course there is not. It is these more specific circumstances that the statutory guidance is designed to address, and I am more than happy to work with noble Lords to discuss what such content might look like.
Amendment 169 seeks to ensure that this guidance and the statutory guidance issued under Section 77 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 include in their discussion of controlling or coercive behaviour the unreasonable refusal to grant a get. We wish to avoid, as far as possible, prescribing in statute what statutory guidance must contain, which can arguably defeat the purpose of producing that guidance. My noble friend will be aware that, in response to significant concern from a large number of parties, Clause 73(3) does provide that guidance issued under the Bill must recognise
“that the majority of victims of domestic abuse… are female.”
However, including the specific issue of Jewish religious divorces similarly in the Bill would lead to pressure for a large number of other topics to be so included—as beautifully illustrated by my noble friend Lord Moylan—which could in practice end up reproducing much of the substance of the guidance in the Bill. My noble friend will have just heard my commitment to referring to this subject in the guidance.
Amendment 168 seeks to amend Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 to ensure that the person who unreasonably refuses a get, and their spouse, are regarded as being in an intimate personal relationship with each other, and therefore count as personally connected, which is a prerequisite for the application of the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour, as noble Lords have pointed out. I understand the intention behind this amendment. My noble friend may be aware that in our White Paper on domestic abuse, published in January 2019, the Government committed to undertake a review into the controlling or coercive behaviour offence. That review, which has considered evidence surrounding the effectiveness of that offence, will be published before Report, and the Government will consider their position in relation to that offence after its publication, in the light of the content of the review and any other information brought to our attention. Therefore, my noble friend’s amendment may be slightly premature.
Amendment 170 seeks to ensure that the unreasonable refusal to consent to a get be regarded as a significant factor in the consideration of whether a person has suffered domestic abuse, particularly whether the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour has been committed; whether a domestic abuse protection order should be issued; and the production by relevant local authorities of strategies for the provision of domestic abuse support, as required by Clause 55. On the first limb of that, the determination of domestic abuse, my remarks about what it is appropriate to include in the Bill and what to include in guidance apply equally.
On the two limbs which refer to court proceedings, it would not be appropriate for the Government to direct the judiciary in this way as to what it might or must consider, and nor is it necessary. The conditions which must be satisfied before a court can make a domestic abuse protection order will already enable a court to make one in relation to this behaviour, if it amounts to abusive behaviour under Clause 1(3). It is therefore unnecessary to make specific provision that a court must consider this sort of behaviour. It would also be the first provision of its type in the Bill, and lead to pressure for other considerations to be included in the Bill as factors courts must consider.
On the final limb, relating to local authorities, we are not otherwise specifying what local authorities must consider when drawing up their strategies. Strategies will relate to general provision in the local authority area, and it would be very odd for the only such provision to refer to a situation which relates to a very small number of people at most. However, again, I reassure my noble friend that this issue will be considered in the statutory guidance, to which local authorities will refer. I hope that in the light of this explanation, my noble friend is happy to withdraw her amendment.