Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 21st and 28th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 7: General functions of Commissioner
Debate on Amendment 21 resumed.
My Lords, when she introduced Amendment 21, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, talked about alcohol abuse and gave several examples of the distress that it can cause not only to the people involved in the relationship but also to the children. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, also mentioned alcohol, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, talked about the symbiotic link
“between substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic abuse”.—[Official Report, 25/1/21; col. 1495.]
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, pointed the finger squarely at the Government, blaming them for many of the problems that crop up simply because of their cuts to the funding of addiction services.
I come at this from a slightly different perspective. The Green Party recognises that, in the majority of cases, the limited use of drugs for recreational purposes is not harmful; it actually has the potential to improve well-being and even enhance human relationships and creativity. However, most harmful drug use is underpinned by poverty, isolation, mental or physical illness and psychological trauma—in these cases, harmful drug use can cause a vicious circle. As such, the Green Party focuses on minimising not only drug abuse but the social ills that lead to it—so we take a health-focused approach to it.
This group of amendments, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, is an important step towards minimising harms caused by problem drug abuse. My reading of them is that they focus on both abusers and survivors so that we can address the issues in a much more holistic and comprehensive way. The Bill will have a gaping hole if it does not properly address the complex relationships between domestic abuse and harmful drug use. The Government have shown willingness to adopt positive amendments and improve the Bill, so I hope that Amendment 21 and the others in this group will find favour with them and that we will see something come back on Report.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. She has an interesting perspective. I will speak to the amendments introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff. The noble Lords, Lord Brooke and Lord Hunt, have already spoken eloquently in their support.
We took evidence on this issue in the ad hoc committee on the Licensing Act 2003, which reported in 2017. Substance abuse in the form of alcohol was indirectly related to it—particularly when it was served to those who were already intoxicated.
I am sympathetic to these amendments. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, mentioned, there can be—although not in every case—a relationship between the impact of substance abuse and addictions and the perpetration of domestic violence. This can lead to a severe deterioration in mental health, which may lead to the violent behaviour that, sadly, we often see.
I will focus my remarks on Amendment 94. This looks to local authorities to provide mental health support where necessary to the victims of domestic abuse where there is substance misuse. How might this work in practice? I am mindful of the helpful, comprehensive letter received from the office of the domestic abuse commissioner, which says, in relation to Part 4 of the Bill:
“The Commissioner has strongly welcomed the new statutory duty on local authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children within refuges and other safe accommodation”.
“The Commissioner has welcomed the funding secured by the MHCLG in the recent Spending Review of £125 million for councils to deliver this duty.”
If this group of amendments were to be carried, how they would work in practice? This is a question for the Minister and, indirectly, for the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I do not want to infer something that the domestic abuse commissioner has not said, but, reading between the lines, it appears that the approach set out in these amendments would not be unwelcome. How can we give practical effect to this group of amendments, given the limited budget available to local authorities and charities?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for her leadership, and my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe for addressing the specific components of mental health, alcohol and harmful substance misuse associated with violence. I commend the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, and support her call for the commissioner to have comprehensive resources and staff, as well as advisers to manage the many complexities and demands in this area.
The Bill offers a unique opportunity to coalesce resources and enhance a more radical and holistic approach and a shift in our national attitude to service provision. I generally support this group of amendments. I am a practitioner and leader of service delivery, having led the national four-year pilot project, Breaking the Cycle, which provided early and long-term family intervention and support. It is a timely reminder that we need to bring our responses to significant hidden harms and violence, long associated with addiction, into the fold of service development.
During the recent lockdown, the statistics have been laid bare, as our attention has fallen on preventing alcohol consumption in pubs and bars, without critical additional support being made available to victims of those who are addicted. Numbers have risen exponentially. Alcohol and substance addiction affects all communities, regardless of faith, race or cultural background, with a pernicious impact which often remains hidden. Many women are fearful of exploring and explaining the secrecy surrounding addiction and of mastering the necessary courage to seek help. Many may experience additional anxiety and fear of the toxicity of discrimination or of children being taken into care. These complexities can prevent many women seeking help and reporting their emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse and safeguarding concerns.
This is why I support these amendments and their fundamental, underlying principles, specifically Amendments 21 and 42, and Amendment 94 regarding the responsibility that a local authority must have to ensure that service provision is available to all. Since its inception, the “Breaking the Cycle” project has supported thousands of families with its expertise, with particular attention on addressing the impact on children, eloquently detailed by noble Lords. There are no easy, immediate solutions except to say that it is crucial to bring these responsibilities into the commissioner’s purview and remit, with specialist staff and advisers. This must, at its core, be a diverse team, given that the client base will reflect the diversity of our population. All services must take on board servicing all victims and survivors, as a matter of core principle. I am delighted to support these amendments.
My Lords, I support the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady Finlay, particularly Amendments 94 and 21. These recognise the importance of substance abuse, addiction and mental health provision in the fight against domestic abuse. As the Committee has heard, these issues are a persistent factor for both perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse. People with mental health problems find themselves disproportionately victimised in domestic abuse settings and children can find themselves equally vulnerable. A Crying Shame, published by the Children’s Commissioner in 2018, highlighted 50,000 children aged nought to five, including 8,300 babies under one, living in households where the destructive impact of domestic abuse, alcohol or drug dependency and severe mental ill-health were all present. A further 160,000 children aged nought to five, including 25,000 babies under one, were living in a household where two of the three factors were present. The Bill represents a huge opportunity to deliver a step change in our response to domestic abuse and, therefore, can only benefit from the inclusion of the provision of mental health and substance abuse support.
I support Amendment 94 as a vital first step, as it requires local authorities to make an assessment of the need for, and publish a strategy on, the provision of substance use, addiction and mental health support for all victims and their children in relevant accommodation. Although the amendment specifically refers to support in “relevant accommodation”, the reality is that the vast majority of victims—an estimated 70%—never set foot in a refuge and remain at home or in alternative housing. Research by the UK women’s organisation Agenda shows that women who have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence are more likely to use alcohol or drugs problematically, compared to women who have not experienced it. While local authorities making these assessments and strategies in relevant accommodation is an important first step, we must consider opportunities for intervention and support for the majority who experience abuse but do not ever seek refuge.
Amendment 21 ensures that the provision of substance use, addiction and mental health support are identified in the Bill as areas for which the domestic abuse commissioner must encourage good practice. This support for those affected by domestic abuse should extend to perpetrators as well. As I argued in my speech on Amendment 172, specialist support for both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse is a crucial component of ensuring that we actually break the cycle of abuse with this Bill. Fewer than 1% of perpetrators currently receive an intervention designed to change their behaviour. A lack of funding for perpetrator services was recently identified as the biggest issue by front-line practitioners across England and Wales. Based on evidence from SafeLives’ Every Story Matters platform, 74% of those surveyed wanted mental health support for perpetrators.
According to evidence from Substance Use and Domestic Abuse, by the British Association of Social Workers, there is a strong association between domestic abuse and substance abuse. Perpetrators may also use drug addiction to control their victims in ways such as limiting victims’ access to drugs, demanding sex for drugs or using drugs as an apology—or even a reward—after an abusive episode. It is important, therefore, that mental health and substance abuse support is recognised in the Bill as part of the breadth of good practice that the domestic abuse commissioner is to encourage.
These amendments are about changing the cultural and social landscape around domestic abuse. If we focus only on refuge, and not intervention and rehabilitation, especially in the context of mental health and substance abuse, we miss a crucial piece of the weaponry in breaking the cycle of domestic abuse.
My Lords, in this group the Committee has already heard a great deal about the role of substance abuse in domestic abuse. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for her tremendous work in this respect. I will focus my brief remarks on the unholy triumvirate of substance abuse, domestic abuse and mental ill-health. There is a strong link between the three.
Some research findings have already been quoted. The most striking that I came across was on substance abuse: abused women are 15 times more likely to abuse alcohol and nine times more likely to abuse drugs. This is one way, but hardly a good one, to alleviate the stress and the pain. Research suggests that women experiencing domestic abuse are more likely to experience mental health problems; women with mental health problems are also more likely to experience domestic abuse. It makes total sense, when you think about it.
It is a vicious circle: domestic abuse leads to mental ill-health, which is often used to abuse the victim further. For example, it can be a tool of coercive control—threatening to “tell social services” and telling the children that “Mummy can’t look after you”. When a victim discloses to a public authority, the abuser may say, “You can’t believe her—she’s mad”. On mental health repercussions, domestic abuse is associated with depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance abuse in the general population. Of course, this all has a profound effect on the children.
The Children’s Commissioner estimates that over 500,000 children are living in households infected with substance abuse and domestic abuse. Children experiencing mental health issues as a result of domestic abuse have strong links with poorer educational outcomes and a high level of mental ill-health. Sadly, that is only to be expected. So the importance of, and interrelationships between, substance misuse, mental ill-health and domestic abuse can hardly be overestimated. That is why we support all the amendments in this group, and I have added my name to three.
Of those to which I have added my name, Amendment 21 specifically writes into the general function of the commissioner the need to include the provision of support for domestic abuse victims suffering from mental health issues and addictions. Amendment 42 sets out the requirement that the commissioner’s advisory board includes at least one person with experience in mental health and substance abuse. Amendment 94 obliges local authorities to provide mental health and substance misuse support to victims. Unless support of this nature is given, this strong interlink between the three will never be broken.
My Lords, I welcome the important contributions made by noble Lords on this difficult subject. It is important to recognise that domestic abuse does not happen in a neat silo; as so many noble Lords have commented, it is inherently bound up with wider issues of mental health and substance abuse.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who so strongly highlighted the impact of devastating cuts to our public services through a decade of austerity. I restate his comments about the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ call for the Government to reverse the cuts and enable local authorities to invest £374 million into adult services to cope with the increased need. Report after report now highlights the poor preparedness of our public realm to cope with this dreadful pandemic, as a consequence of the austerity decade, when council funding was cut to the bone.
Mental health services have been particularly impacted by this austerity, leading to a lack of services and long waiting times. Victims and survivors with mental health problems also face barriers accessing many other vital services due to strict eligibility criteria or not being able to engage in the way that services require. Too often, such barriers are leading to people being bounced around different services, having to constantly re-tell their story.
There is, however, an awareness of the complex and interrelated needs of those with mental ill health, but many services are unequipped to support them, and few services exist that can care for people with both mental health and substance misuse issues. This is despite research showing that substances are often used as a form of self-medication for unmet mental health needs and as a way of coping with abuse.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, spoke so knowledgably about, there is a close link between domestic abuse and alcohol, with the perpetrator drinking heavily. There are also instances of the victim drinking, leading to uninhibited behaviours, and this can trigger the abuse. Similarly, the victim may use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. During the pandemic, there has been an increased level of alcohol consumption, exacerbating a known problem.
There is, therefore, a great need to ensure that the commissioner’s remit includes alcohol and other substances. She needs to be able to receive evidence on alcohol abuse to inform where support services must be improved, and to contribute directly to the national alcohol strategy.
In conclusion, the importance of multiagency and holistic working in this area cannot be overemphasised. It is important to recognise that mental health and addiction problems can create additional vulnerabilities that people perpetrating abuse may seek to exploit.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate on the complexities of alcohol and substance misuse and mental health and the correlation with domestic abuse, from the point of view of both the victim and—as my noble friend Lady Stroud said—the perpetrator. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for tabling these amendments and her work in chairing the Commission on Alcohol Harm.
I will start with the final comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport. She and I are cut from the same cloth in knowing the effectiveness with which multiagency work can help in all sorts of ways. The way that agencies communicate with each other can get to the heart of some of the problems in society.
I also acknowledge the contributions of the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott, Lady Hayter, Lady Jenkin and Lady Jolly, and thank the noble Lords, Lord Brooke and Lord Ribeiro, for their expertise and their input into the Alcohol Health Alliance’s report for the Commission on Alcohol Harm, which was published last year. It highlights these complex relationships between alcohol, mental health and domestic abuse. I welcome the report; it makes for important reading.
As the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, has illustrated, there is a frequent coexistence of domestic abuse, mental health problems and the misuse of drugs and alcohol, with complex interrelationships between them. The relationships are nuanced, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, is right to identify this. It is also clear that there is no excuse for domestic abuse, and it is vital that people affected by domestic abuse get the healthcare they need.
I reassure noble Lords that we intend to reflect the importance of joining up domestic abuse, mental health and substance misuse services in the statutory guidance to be issued under Clause 73. We have a number of other, parallel measures to ensure that the join-up should be reflected in local health commissioning and the support that people receive. Noble Lords will know that local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and other partners produce an assessment of the local population needs, called the joint strategic needs assessment. This should include consideration of the needs of victims and survivors. The assessment informs a local area’s health and well-being strategy and the commissioning of services, including mental health and substance misuse services.
I will say something about local authority spending because noble Lords have referred to it. Local authority spending through the public health grant will be maintained in the next financial year. Local authorities can continue to invest in prevention and essential front-line services. This includes drug and alcohol treatment and recovery services. We are working on increasing access to substance misuse services, and we have appointed Professor Dame Carol Black to undertake an independent review of drugs to inform the Government’s work on what more can be done to tackle the harms that drugs cause.
I also draw noble Lords’ attention to ongoing work in the health system to create new integrated care systems where NHS organisations, in partnership with local councils, voluntary service partners and others, take collective responsibility for managing resources, delivering NHS care and improving the health of the population they serve. The development of a new integrated care system is a real opportunity to improve the join-up between different services and provide truly integrated care.
I turn to the specifics of the amendments. On Amendments 21 and 29, which relate to the role of the domestic abuse commissioner, the Bill already confers on the commissioner a wide remit in tackling domestic abuse. She has already started to provide public leadership on domestic abuse issues by raising awareness of key matters and monitoring and overseeing the delivery of services to ensure that they are as effective, evidence-based and safe as they can be.
The description of the role states that the commissioner must adopt a specific focus on the needs of victims from groups with particular needs, which could include mental ill-health or substance misuse. However, as an independent office holder, it will be for the commissioner to determine her priorities, which will be set out in a strategic plan developed following consultation with her advisory board, the Home Secretary and others.
As for Amendment 42, which relates to the composition of the advisory board, Clause 12 already provides that at least one member of the board must be a representative of the health care sector, and there is sufficient latitude for the commissioner to appoint other specialists as she sees fit.
Amendments 94 and 104 relate to Part 4 and the new duty on tier 1 local authorities to provide support to domestic abuse victims and their children in safe accommodation. The Explanatory Notes make it clear that such support may include drug and alcohol advice and support. On the membership of domestic abuse local partnership boards, Clause 56 specifies the minimum membership; otherwise, the composition of the board is a matter for the relevant local authority and could well include a person with experience tackling substance misuse. However, we should leave that to the judgment of the relevant local authority. We are committed to taking wide-ranging action to improve understanding of domestic abuse across statutory agencies, through guidance, targeted resources and training for responding agencies.
In relation to Amendment 181, I can assure noble Lords that the statutory guidance that will be issued under Clause 73 will be an opportunity to focus on the complex relationship with substance misuse and mental ill-health as well.
A couple of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, and my noble friend Lady Stroud, referred to perpetrators. It is fair to say that addressing a perpetrator’s drug or alcohol use is unlikely, in and of itself, to reduce or solve the problem of domestic abuse. It is equally important that any alcohol or drugs treatment programme for perpetrators, as well as addressing the cause of the substance abuse, also addresses the complex dynamics that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, outlined, and the power and control that underpin domestic abuse.
As we will come on to, Part 3 enables positive requirements, such as attendance at a drug or alcohol programme or a behavioural change programme, to be attached to a domestic abuse protection order. It will also be open to a court to require the subject of such an order to wear a sobriety tag. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, will be very pleased to hear that, as will my noble friend Lady Jenkin.
On funding, noble Lords will have seen the joint announcement last week from the Home Office and the Department of Health that we are investing an extra £80 million in drug treatment services, right across England, to give more support to offenders with drink and drug addictions, which can of course fuel crime.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and other noble Lords have, through these amendments, drawn attention to a very important issue in the arena of domestic abuse. I thank all noble Lords for raising it in this debate. I hope I have been able to persuade the noble Baroness of the existing provisions and ongoing work in healthcare, and that the Bill already provides the means for the domestic abuse commissioner and tier 1 local authorities, in the context of the new duty in Part 4, to address the links between substance misuse, mental health and domestic abuse. On that basis, I hope she will be happy to withdraw her amendment.
I have received one request to speak after the Minister, from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott.
My Lords, the Committee has every reason to be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, because these are all very important announcements; I thank everyone involved, and it is very good to be speaking to this group. This subject is not just close to my heart but has been part of my life. I was very pleased to hear in the Minister’s response how many things are going to be in place to deal with alcoholism, in particular. I very much look forward to Dame Carol Black’s review—I know how brilliant she is—and I also welcome the news about sobriety tags. I just want to make a few points, some of them personal.
The link between alcohol and domestic abuse is well known, and yet, strangely, it is often not at the forefront of the debate. Some 55% of domestic abuse cases involve alcohol or some kind of substance, and women who drink themselves are 15 times more likely to be abused than women who do not. I am not going to repeat the stats; one only has to read the excellent contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, on Monday night to get a good picture of how solid the evidence is. Drunk people, both men and women, are more likely to abuse or be abused than those who are not. Alcohol itself is not the culprit, and it should never be an excuse for behaviour. However, I believe that it is so tightly woven into the problem that it must be treated as part of the recovery process.
I am very glad that, as a result of the Bill, the crime of domestic abuse will be better dealt with and we will have more refuges. I also welcome the commissioner. But if we do not study, understand and treat alcoholism, then we are not doing our job.
Alcoholics, when they are drinking and when they are addicted to alcohol, are really difficult to deal with. Alcohol, as people say, is both cunning, baffling and powerful. I know that, in my life, I have drunk to excess. I do not drink now and I have not done for many years, but alcoholism will be with me for the rest of my life. It is very hard to break that cycle without help, and there are far too few treatment centres in this country. I know—again, from my own experience and that of people I know—that doctors and general hospitals do not like disruptive alcoholics, who are really hard to treat and who take up beds. They sober up and are then sent back into the world, where they start drinking again. People, especially women, keep alcoholism a secret. It is seen still as an issue of shame in this country, which is one reason I have always spoken publicly about it, throughout my life.
If we do not stop the cycle, the same thing happens again. Abuse is a spiral, in much the same way as addiction, and a drunk abuser will seek a victim. A woman who drinks herself and who has, probably as a consequence, the lower self-esteem that goes along with it, will almost inevitably partner up with the kind of bloke who will, ultimately, abuse her. That is what you do when you think you are not worth anything, because you are the person in our society who cannot handle alcohol like everybody else does.
Personally, I cannot think of a more difficult thing—it is almost impossible—than to be a woman with kids who is the victim of domestic abuse and a drinker herself. Yes, the council may find you a refuge, but, when that is over and you have to go back to the world, if you do not have some solid help to get through that addiction, you are going to end up back where you were, and the saga goes on and on.
The need to break this cycle must be a fundamental, core part of the commissioner’s remit. She needs all the expertise to support her and she needs money to enable her to make the right decisions. No one in their wildest miseries or nightmares would want to be addicted to any substance, from a bottle, a needle or a pill—it is a misery you would not wish on anyone. But once there, it takes some time and patience. I have been lucky; I have been able to afford the help I needed, but this should not be an issue of money.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said earlier in this debate, deep cuts have been made to addiction services in this country since 2013-14. It means that the 8.4 million potentially high-risk drinkers—that is an awful lot—and the hundreds with opiate addictions, are not getting the right help. It is an insane situation, because for every addict or alcoholic, it is reckoned that at least five people are swept into the madness and distress. It costs money: to the NHS, to the criminal justice system and to society.
WHO figures suggest that 50% of men who kill their wives are drunk or addicted. Helping people who drink or abuse substances through to the other side—through to a chance, literally, to rejoin the world as a useful member of society—would bring so many great benefits. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke so wonderfully about on Monday night, so many children would have their lives transformed. As she said, the Commission on Alcohol Harm heard from children who were terrified to go home for fear of what their parent or parents might do. The Children’s Commissioner estimates that there are more than half a million children living in households where domestic abuse, along with drink and substance abuse, is prevalent.
The alcohol lobby is big and powerful. It has successfully fought demands for minimum pricing in England—though it lost in Scotland—a measure that is known to reduce harmful consumption. This stuff is everywhere. Adverts are well targeted, promising thrills and excitement, and they all too often use sexualised images of women to encourage purchase. This ought to stop. I am the last person who wants to see alcohol sales restricted in any way, but I am convinced that we cannot keep shoving this big problem to one side. Domestic abuse and alcohol are linked, and unless we break the addiction cycle, we will not break the other. We can no longer condemn both the victims and the abusers—who are, in my mind, sometimes also victims—to the shadows.
There is very little of what the noble Baroness said with which I would disagree. The cycle of abuse—whether that cycle is generational or whether it goes from spouse to partner and then reaches down to the children—is ever present and it needs to be broken. I agree that the links between alcohol abuse—not alcohol use but alcohol abuse—and domestic abuse are very well known. On people getting the help they need, it is absolutely clear that support for alcohol or substance misuse should mean that people can access the right services, which are commissioned by local authorities.
The noble Baroness made a point about the domestic abuse commissioner. It has been interesting in these debates that, on the one hand, the independence of the commissioner has been very much promoted, and I totally agree with that. On the other, we are by increment, through the debates in this House, trying to add additional remits and stymie her independence. She is an expert in her field. I know that she will make those links. I talk about troubled families quite a lot in the things that I say. That is because I have seen the way in which multi-agency interventions can be so effective at spotting things such as domestic abuse. The advent of that programme spotted an awful lot of domestic abuse previously unknown—and not only previously unknown but at the heart of the problems that these families were facing. We all know that when a big football match is on, women are quite often hyper-vigilant, knowing that, whatever way the game goes, they will bear the brunt of it—mainly as a result of the use of alcohol.
The noble Baroness also asked me about minimum pricing, which Scotland has introduced. We are keeping it under review as it is implemented in Scotland.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for what I consider to be a really quite overwhelming response to this set of amendments. We have had a very important debate. I would love to summarise what each person has said, but I am aware that the Committee has other amendments to get on to. I would like to highlight the fact that the toxic trio was launched into our debate on Monday by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley, and picked up again by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and it has been the focus around which many people have spoken. I am delighted to hear about the sobriety scheme and sobriety tags being brought in for alcohol-fuelled crime. I was part of that original amendment, some years ago, that allowed the pilot scheme to happen, and have seen the evidence from the US in particular of the efficacy in domestic situations as well. I am grateful in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, for that, and to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for putting local authority services so strongly on the table, with the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott, Lady Uddin and Lady Wilcox.
I will be withdrawing my amendment; let me leave no doubt about that. I have a slight concern, though. We really need to get something, somewhere on the face of the Bill, because I am aware of the adverse pressures that come from the commercial world, where the sale of alcohol brings in profits. Of course, the money coming into the Exchequer nowhere near matches the expenditure on the harmful effects of alcohol. I hope that the Minister will meet me between now and Report, for us to look at putting something in somewhere, rather than only in guidance. I accept that it will be statutory guidance, and I would like those reassurances again on Report to make sure that we do not lose sight of this. If we do, we will lose an incredibly important opportunity to make a difference to both victims’ and perpetrators’ lives. As has already been said, sometimes the victim, who is addicted to alcohol, has behaviours that are so goading that it is then almost unsurprising that this results in a downward spiral of abuse, and the one fuels the other. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 22. 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 debate.
22: Clause 7, page 4, line 20, at end insert “which must include the identification of and response to any speech, language and communication needs that those people have.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 22 I will speak also to Amendments 92, 105, 110 and 187, which are in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, my noble friend Baroness Finlay of Llandaff and the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin. In doing so, I declare my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties. Unfortunately, I was unable to trail these amendments at Second Reading, for which I apologise to the Committee.
My co-chair, Geraint Davies MP, and I wrote to the Home Secretary in June, appealing to her to place a duty on the domestic abuse commissioner and local authorities to ensure that good practice should include the identification of, and appropriate support for, communication needs. We also appealed to her to allow victims of abuse, with communication disabilities and needs, to be allowed to give evidence in court in private. We also asked that speech and language therapists should serve on domestic abuse local partnership boards. We received a reply to this in September from Victoria Atkins MP, the Minister for Safeguarding, in which she said that the Government continued to prioritise improving speech and language outcomes, based on early identification and targeted support.
I well remember being introduced to the importance of having communication needs addressed by two cases when I was Chief Inspector of Prisons. The first was a woman who had been beaten into dumbness by her abusive partner. The creative writer at her prison encouraged her to express her feelings in poetry, which she then gave to other women to read out. One day the creative writer asked the woman herself to read her poem, and she found that she was able to. Her dumbness having been cured, the authorities could work with her. The same thing happened to a young offender who had been beaten into dumbness by his abusive father. Thanks to a speech and language therapist, the authorities were then able to plan a future that did not include return to his family.
I return to the amendments, which seek to flesh out the contents of our letter to the Home Secretary. Amendment 22 seeks to put the identification of and response to speech and communication needs into the Bill. Amendment 92 seeks to introduce local authority responsibility. Amendment 105 seeks to include speech and language therapists in domestic abuse local partnership boards, while Amendment 110 seeks to ensure that those with communication needs are provided with appropriate support in court. Amendment 187 adds the impact on children of witnessing domestic abuse to the importance of assessing the communication treatment that a victim may need. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have signed this group of amendments, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, with such conviction, because this area of domestic abuse is even more hidden from outside view than is normally the case.
The ability to defend oneself depends so much on the ability to use language—to express grief and hurt and to offer explanation and defence. We know that, for young people and children in particular, communication difficulties—difficulties in being understood and in understanding—can lead to invisibility as well as inaudibility. At worst, they lead to bullying in school and throughout life. These young people live at the heart of a perfect storm. Disabled people, shamefully, as we have learned throughout this debate, experience disproportionately higher and more prolonged abuse. They cannot as easily protect themselves or find protection. Their children, even if not directly abused themselves, will observe all of this—and, equally shamefully, disproportionately. Witnessing a parent being abused is itself the most hideous form of abuse. The children live with this violence and misery as victims and observers, silently and alone.
We can all understand that, but research underpins it and shows categorically that abused children are likely to have poor language and social skills. As research by Refuge has also found, they become afraid of the very people they count on to love them. It is no wonder that pre-school children shrink away into silence. While their disabilities grow worse, other children exposed to domestic violence are likely to be at risk of developing significant speech and language problems. Again, research documents a significant difference in hearing and speech development.
If that is combined with learning difficulties, as is often the case, children neither know what is happening to them, nor can they explain to other people what it feels like, except that many must feel that it is all their fault. The impacts are deep and lifelong. It is hard to imagine the mental torture for a child seeing a parent being violently hurt, and having to stand by, imprisoned by fear and locked in silence. Lifelong impacts must be at least loss of confidence in all relationships, as well as on learning.
We want to take the opportunity in the Bill not just to recognise the particularly vulnerable and dangerous situation that those children and young people face but, through these amendments, to build in agency and capacity for change. The first step must be, as set out in the amendment, to recognise and articulate the issue. The amendment would place a legal duty on the domestic abuse commissioner to ensure that the good practice that the commissioner must encourage has to include the identification of and appropriate support for communication needs. Given that there is no reason on earth why the Government should not accept the amendment, in all humanity, we ask the Minister how she sees this operating in good practice.
Amendment 92 and subsequent amendments in the group would embed agency at the level of local authority and practice, so that the needs of those children are made explicit in the local strategy, ensuring that they have a champion and advocate, a speech and language specialist. Such services are reflected in later amendments dealing with the courts. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists put it powerfully, stating:
“It would help support not just those affected by domestic abuse, but also the other professionals working with them to understand the links between domestic abuse and communication needs, how the latter may present and their impact, and how to respond appropriately”.
As with so much in this Bill, every aspect of every abuse that we are seeking to correct has taken on more complexity and urgency. However, this group of amendments has a particular moral force. It is primarily about victims of domestic abuse and their children, who are already at a great disadvantage and not well served by present services. They need extra help in this Bill. Your Lordships can make sure that they get it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I am delighted to be a co-signatory to these amendments as someone who has speech, language and communication needs, and as a proud vice-president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.
I hope that noble Lords might indulge me if I share a detail of my life that has a considerable bearing on why I am supporting these amendments. Yesterday marked exactly 25 years since I should have died. It is slightly surreal to hear myself say that. Yet I will always remember the answer to my question, “What are the odds on my making a complete recovery from the operation?” The response was to the point: “I am afraid I cannot give you odds on survival”. My life was saved by the incredible skill of my neurosurgeon, Anne Moore, and maxillo-facial surgeon, Daniel Archer, who went through the back of my mouth to access my spine and brainstem. I lived to tell the tale, obviously, but the shock of losing the ability to speak and the immense sense of isolation and vulnerability that went with that will stay with me for ever, as will the trauma of three frustrating years before further surgery enabled me to speak intelligibly again.
To compound the anguish of that experience by adding domestic abuse to the situation hardly bears thinking about. So, while I cannot speak from the perspective of someone with communication needs who has suffered domestic abuse, my personal experience teaches me that the changes outlined so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, are needed.
A central lesson, for me, of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010 is that change does not happen by accident. It needs to be continuous and to be codified and embedded in practice. So, I support placing a legal duty on the domestic abuse commissioner to ensure that the good practice they are required to encourage includes the identification of and appropriate support for communication needs, in line with the amendment.
The measures provided for by these amendments are necessary. Local domestic abuse strategies need to detail how the local authority will identify and respond to communication needs. Domestic abuse local partnership boards need to include a speech and language therapist. Rules of court must include the provision of appropriate support for those with communication needs, and any guidance issued under the clause referred to in connection with Amendment 187 should include information on the links between domestic abuse and communication needs and, just as importantly, the impact that witnessing domestic abuse, as the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, explained so clearly, can have on children’s communication needs.
There is one other personal point which has a bearing on why I regard these amendments as so necessary. Until I entered your Lordships’ House, I had hardly ever experienced disability discrimination. The organisations I worked for were sensitive to my communication needs and they honoured their legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to how they operated. They would never have signalled to me to speed up while I was speaking, as the noble Baroness the Leader of the House did from the Front Bench only recently. Quite apart from the law, I wonder whether she has given the slightest thought to how much courage it takes to stand up in your Lordships’ House when you have communication needs that are not even acknowledged, let alone accommodated. In any professional, modern workplace, I would be asked whether I needed more time on account of my disability. It is to the detriment of your Lordships’ House that it should act as if it were above the laws on disability discrimination and equality which it helped to bring about. Indeed, we must be one of very few institutions that expects the law to accommodate our procedures rather than the other way around.
In conclusion, I do not want any other body to follow the poor example set by your Lordships’ House. These amendments would help to ensure that that does not happen. That is another reason they are so important to the victims of domestic abuse who have, like me, speech, language and communication needs, and why they deserve a substantive and considered response from the Government.
My Lords, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has withdrawn from this debate, so I call the next speaker.
My Lords, I speak in support of this whole group. I declare an interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties, a patron of the British Stammering Association and, indeed, as a stammerer myself. Stammering is often not recognised as a disability, but depending on its intensity, it has profound effects, particularly on children’s ability to cope with stress and to develop, and it is exacerbated by domestic violence. I am indebted to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists for its research.
I will only add to the comprehensive and persuasive speeches by those noble Lords who have spoken to these amendments that in connection with support for communication needs generally in good practice, stammerers have difficulty in reporting traumatic events and in accessing services at the first contact when this is often by telephone. Inclusion of speech and language therapists on domestic abuse partnership boards and in local authority responses in their strategy is of particular benefit to victims who stammer, especially if the role of the therapist is to consider initial access to services.
In respect of guidance on the psychological impact of domestic abuse, in particular on children’s speech and communication, there is evidence that children who are exposed to domestic violence have a greater propensity to develop speech and language difficulties, thus harming their life chances thereafter. For instance, court proceedings can add intimidation and stress, which make these amendments of great importance in alleviating the damage caused by domestic abuse.
My Lords, I declare an interest in chairing the board of governors of Cardiff Metropolitan University, a major provider of speech and language therapy education with 130 students currently enrolled across the three-year course, 49 of whom started in 2020.
I support all the amendments because the links between domestic abuse and people with communication needs are clear but seriously underrecognised. In a cycle of abuse, communication needs in a child are ignored or overlooked as many do not realise how much can be done to improve a child’s life chances if they receive early—I stress early—supportive intervention. Public Health England’s Disability and Domestic Abuse: Risk, Impacts and Response paper reports:
“Disabled people experience disproportionately higher rates of domestic abuse. They also experience domestic abuse for longer periods of time, and more severe and frequent abuse.”
When those victims also have communication needs, they experience more barriers to accessing support such as health and social care services and domestic abuse services, and are at greater risk of ongoing gender-based sexual violence.
But the damage from abuse goes wider. The young child who experiences or witnesses abuse is more likely to have delayed speech and hearing development. This affects global cognitive development, especially in reading and writing, expressive language skills and social interaction skills. These children then fall further behind in many domains and may have flashbacks resulting in emotional shutdown and aberrant behaviours. Of course, they find it harder to express what has been happening, so these children often suddenly break down at school and the whole story unravels, but in a piecemeal and jerky fashion.
The cycle continues. Speech and language therapists working with children and young people in care or in custody report a very high incidence of these children having been abused or witnessed abuse. The key point is that recognition of abuse and subsequent remedial action must happen early, which is why speech and language therapists should be viewed as key members of statutory domestic abuse services.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, have highlighted the link between domestic abuse and communication needs—both in how abuse can lead to communication difficulties and how important communication ability is, so that victims can express the impact that domestic abuse has had on them. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, brings her wealth of professional experience to reinforce these points.
Disability discrimination includes when you are treated less well or put at a disadvantage for a reason that relates to your disability in one of the situations covered by the Equality Act 2010, such as when you use public services or have contact with public bodies. Those with communication needs would be included in that. I understand the particular concerns of those noble Lords who are promoting these amendments, but I wonder whether the protections of the Equality Act are sufficient. However, I hear the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, that these protections need to be embedded.
My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the Committee to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. These Benches welcome and support all the amendments in this group.
Amendment 22, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, seeks to put a clear statement in the Bill that, in encouraging good practice as required by Clause 7, the domestic abuse commissioner must include identification of and response to any speech and communication needs that people have. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, using his extensive experience of work in the criminal justice system, as Chief Inspector of Prisons, gave us a clear example of why this is so important. My noble friend Lady Andrews made a point about how important it is to be able to use language to express and defend yourself. My noble friend also made the point that children witnessing abuse of a parent by another parent or partner is a horrific form of abuse. We have heard from other noble Lords that lifelong damage can be caused to a child who witnesses that form of abuse.
The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, in an important and thoughtful contribution, explained to us the difficulties that he suffered 25 years ago and the effect that they had on his speech at the time. His contributions are always valued and respected in the House, and I am very sorry to learn that he feels that that is not the case.
I cannot see who would not agree with any of the amendments in this group. The first, Amendment 22, seeks to ensure that support is available and generally accessible to every victim. We may be told in a moment by the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, that this amendment or these amendments are not needed, and that support is implied anyway. That may be so, and I am sure the noble Lord will set out his case shortly, but I think he needs to go further and that the Government have to provide every reassurance necessary. It may be that the noble Lord thinks that the provisions are adequately covered under Clause 7(2)(a) and (b), along with the powers set out in Clause 9. If that is the case, can the noble Lord make that expressly clear in his reply to this debate?
Amendment 92 seeks again to put a commitment in the Bill that a local authority will identify and respond to speech, language and communication needs when preparing its strategy for the support of domestic abuse victims—something that I and many other noble Lords fully support. Again, when responding to the debate, if the noble Lord thinks that this amendment is unnecessary and is going to rely on the powers set out in Clause 55(8) and (9)(b), and/or the powers contained under guidance in Clause 58, can he confirm than the Secretary of State will address the issue specifically through one of these routes?
Amendment 110 seeks to address the same issue as the previous amendments, this time in respect of providing proper support for victims during court proceedings. Again, if we are to be told by the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, that this amendment is also not necessary, it would be helpful to have reassurances on the record that these important issues will be fully addressed by the rules of the court or other provisions.
Finally, Amendment 187 seeks to put points in the section related to guidance in the Bill that have been raised in previous amendments, along with the important issue of children witnessing domestic abuse and the effect that has on speech, language and communication needs, which many noble Lords raised in this short debate, including my noble friend Lady Andrews and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff. I look forward to the noble Lord’s response to this short debate.
I start by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his work as co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties, as he set out in opening this debate. The ability to communicate is a crucial life skill, so I welcome all the work that he and my noble friend Lord Shinkwin do in this area. He brought passion and personal insight to his contribution to the debate today. We are all extremely glad to have his voice, and the benefits of his experience and extensive work, in your Lordships’ House.
We all know that domestic abuse has a devastating impact on all its victims, and recognising the specific needs of individual victims is essential. Those facing communication barriers are, arguably, some of the most vulnerable victims of domestic abuse, given the added difficulties that they have when it comes to speaking out or asking for support. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, gave two powerful examples in his speech from his experience as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons.
We also recognise the particular impact on children and young people. As the noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews, Lady Whitaker and Lady Finlay of Llandaff, set out, early speech and language is an important protective factor for a child’s health and development. It affects the rest of their lives. Extensive work is already under way to strengthen the response from key agencies to speech and language difficulties, which we all welcome.
On Amendment 22 and the role of the domestic abuse commissioner, the Bill already confers a wide remit on the commissioner in tackling domestic abuse. The designate commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, has already started to provide public leadership and is raising awareness of key issues, monitoring and overseeing delivery of services to ensure that they are as effective, evidence-based and safe as they can be. She will be responsible for assessing, monitoring and publishing information about the range of provisions that exist for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. The commissioner’s role description states that he or she
“must adopt a specific focus on the needs of victims … from … groups with particular needs,”
which includes people with communication needs.
However, as I set out in response to earlier amendments and as my noble friend said in the debate on the last group, as an independent officeholder, it is for the commissioner to determine her priorities. They will be set out in the strategic plan that is developed following consultation with her advisory board, the Home Secretary and others. It is important that we maintain the independence of her role, so that she can go wherever she feels that she needs to.
Amendments 92 and 105 seek to ensure that local authorities give due regard and respond to speech, language and communication needs when discharging their functions under Part 4. I appreciate the intention behind these amendments, but the Government feel that putting such detailed requirements in the Bill could reduce local authorities’ flexibility to meet particular local needs. It is by setting up local partnership boards, as referred to in the debate, in line with local needs and existing partnership arrangements, that we will see the strength of that flexible approach. To answer the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, we do not therefore believe that these amendments are necessary, given the broad definition of domestic abuse support in Clause 55. Moreover, these matters can be further addressed in the statutory guidance, rather than in the Bill.
In addition, considerable work is already taking place across Government that seeks to improve the experience of victims, such as refreshing the national statement of expectations, which is due to be published later this year. That will set out best practice for services tackling violence against women and girls, and associated commissioning. We are completely dedicated to joined-up action to ensure not only that we prevent abuse, but that we provide the most appropriate support for victims and survivors. The victims’ strategy outlines this very commitment to improve the offer of support.
Furthermore, the Children and Social Work Act 2017 saw some of the most significant reforms in this area to date. It requires local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and the police to form appropriate multiagency safeguarding partnerships. Of course, local authorities should meet the needs of all victims of domestic abuse, based on a robust local needs assessment. That is why we intend to make clear that local authorities should consider additional barriers that might prevent victims with protective characteristics accessing support in refuges and other safe accommodation services. Local strategies will also need to set out clearly how local authorities, working with and through their local partnership board, will address the barriers that they have identified.
We can all appreciate the need for local strategies to be effective and inclusive. As well as the statutory guidance, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government may, by regulation, make provision regarding the preparation and publication of domestic abuse strategies. These regulations are intended to provide for a consistent approach to these strategies across the country.
I take this opportunity to reaffirm that there is an important balance to strike between providing local authorities with the flexibility to meet particular local needs and ensuring a consistent approach to the provision of support. The clauses as drafted, supported by the regulations and comprehensive statutory guidance for local authorities, will provide that very balance.
Amendment 110 focuses on the courts’ role in considering appropriate support for people with speech, language and communication needs. The Committee may be aware that in February last year the Government requested that the Civil Justice Council examined the vulnerabilities of witnesses and other parties. Its report emphasised that the vulnerability of people involved in civil proceedings should be considered and that court facilities should be equipped to accommodate the assistance and protections that vulnerable witnesses require. We agree, and continue to examine the council’s recommendations more generally.
Finally, on Amendment 187, I assure the noble Lord that we are committed to improving the understanding of domestic abuse across the statutory agencies, through guidance, targeted resources and training. The statutory guidance, which will be issued under Clause 73, will provide an opportunity to focus on the unique issues of particular minority groups, including those with complex needs—people with disabilities as well as those with communication and speech difficulties. The draft guidance was published with specific reference to special educational needs and disabilities.
Extensive engagement has been undertaken on the draft statutory guidance since it was published in July, with a specific working group focusing on disability, including learning disabilities. A range of services have provided their expertise. That engagement and consultation continue and we are grateful to all those who have contributed to improving the guidance so far.
All noble Lords who have contributed to this debate have drawn attention to an important issue. I hope I have been able to reassure them that the Bill already provides a framework to ensure that the speech, language and communication needs of victims are addressed. On that basis, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I have received no requests to speak after the Minister, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and all those who have spoken so movingly in support of the amendments. The importance of communication for victims of domestic abuse and their children cannot be overemphasised. The Minister for Safeguarding having emphasised the importance that the Government attach to improving speech and language outcomes, I had hoped that the Government would consider including some of the contents of these amendments in the Bill. Until then, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 22 withdrawn.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 23. 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 debate.
23: Clause 7, page 4, line 20, at end insert—
“(e) the appropriate use of data and technology to aid in the prevention, reporting and detection of domestic abuse.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that the Commissioner should encourage best practice when using data and technology in the prevention, reporting and detection of domestic abuse.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to move Amendment 23. I will speak also to Amendments 28 and 62, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. I am glad to say that she will speak later in our debate.
The amendments are based on research by the LSE, which found that during lockdown, abuse by current partners, as well as by family members, increased on average by 8.1% and 17.1% respectively, whereas abuse by ex-partners declined by 11.4%. This increase in domestic abuse calls is driven by third-party reporting, which suggests that there is significant underreporting by actual victims, particularly in households where the abuse cannot be reported by an outsider.
An analysis of more than 16,000 cases of domestic violence enacted on one individual by another showed that the current predictive system failed to classify over 1,700 situations as high risk, which subsequently saw a repeat attack—a negative prediction rate of 11.5%.
The LSE research found that by utilising technology, through machine-learning methods, or AI, this negative prediction rate could be cut to between 7.3% and 8.7%. In England, domestic violence accounts for one-third of all assaults involving injury. A crucial part of tackling this abuse is risk assessment—determining what level of danger someone may be in so that they can receive help as quickly as possible. This means prioritising police resources in responding to domestic abuse calls accordingly.
This risk assessment is currently done through a standardised list of questions, administered to the victim by the responding officer, as well as the officer’s own professional risk assessment of the case. The DASH—domestic abuse, stalking, harassment and honour-based violence—form consists of around 28 questions used to categorise the case as standard, medium or high risk. If a case is assessed high risk, this suggests that an incident of serious harm could occur at any time, and this triggers resources aimed at keeping the victim safe. However, the DASH data is available only after an officer has appeared on the scene.
The research shows striking inconsistencies in DASH across the country. In 2014, HMIC found that 10 police forces classified fewer than 10% of domestic abuse cases as high risk, while three forces designated over 80% as high risk. This vast deviation casts serious doubt on the accuracy of current predictive methods.
A recent report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services reveals concern that the police are sometimes too slow in getting to domestic abuse incidents and that there were delays in responding to cases in over a quarter of forces. The inspectorate also found that, in a small number of cases, the delays are because the forces do not have enough officers available to attend.
LSE data analysis compared the predictive power of conventional DASH risk assessments with risk assessments using a machine-learning approach. It applied the different prediction models to calls to Greater Manchester Police between 2014 and 2018, and compared predictions made, case-by-case, to actual violent recidivism over a period of 12 months from the initial call. When tested against the sample data, the predictive power of risk assessments from the conventional DASH method are low; a machine-learning prediction based on the underlying data from the DASH questionnaire performs better; while a machine-learning prediction based on two-year criminal histories of victim and perpetrator performs much better still.
The researchers—Professor Tom Kirchmaier, Professor Jeffrey Grogger and Dr Ria Ivandic—therefore suggest that police forces should use machine-learning predictions based on two-year criminal histories, rather than DASH, to make risk assessments and prioritise responses to domestic violence calls.
Vitally, the research also found that by improving the data compiled during the investigation of domestic violence cases, to include details such as previous criminal convictions, incidents of violence, and the number of previous reports of domestic abuse, the negative prediction rate could be cut further to 6.1%. Up to 1,200 repeat attacks missed under the current system would have been identified.
We all know that there is a real problem with the use of data by the police. The Royal United Services Institute, in a report last year, identified some of the issues facing police forces in the use of data. It reported that in recent years, police use of algorithms has expanded significantly in scale and complexity. It argued that this was driven by three closely related factors. First, a significant increase in the volume and complexity of digital data has necessitated the use of more sophisticated analysis tools. Secondly, ongoing austerity measures have resulted in a perceived need to allocate limited resources more efficiently, based on a data-driven assessment of risk and demand. Thirdly, the police service is increasingly expected to adopt a preventive rather than reactive posture, with greater emphasis on anticipating potential harm before it occurs.
But—and here is the “but”—interviewees highlighted the lack of an evidence base, poor data quality and insufficient skills and expertise as the three major barriers to successful implementation. In particular, the development of policing algorithms is often not underpinned by a robust empirical evidence base regarding their claimed benefits, scientific validity or cost-effectiveness. In this case, we do have evidence. The Minister will obviously know the Greater Manchester police force well. I hope she might be able to look at this to see how far it could be extended to other forces and encourage best practice.
The failure to use data effectively is also at the heart of Amendment 62, to which I have also put my name. At a briefing last week for noble Lords, LSE researchers noted that domestic abuse prevention notices will be an important and much-appreciated new tool in the fight against domestic abuse. However, when an officer is considering handing one out, having access to the criminal history of the alleged perpetrator should be a crucial aspect of their decision-making. As mentioned, more than one in 10 people who report domestic abuse will call again within a year to report a repeat violent attack, and that is only one aspect of the kaleidoscope of past violence and abuse that may be known to the police but not necessarily utilised, or even known, by an officer attending a case of reported abuse.
One key challenge that we have to overcome is that police forces do not currently have systematic ways of recording the same person, victim or perpetrator. This means that, oftentimes, repeat victims or perpetrators are not spotted or no action is taken to protect from and prevent abuse. Forces rely on correct spelling of the full name and date of birth to access records, but data entry can be found to be incorrect or incomplete. Thames Valley Police has taken positive steps to address this issue and it could be used as a case study example that others could follow.
However, we know that police forces do not share data systematically, apart from via the national police computer, which records only charges. This calls into question the full effectiveness of Clare’s law and police forces’ ability to give full information to potential victims about known abusers and, in the process, to prevent future abuse. The system can clearly be improved. Enshrining in legislation the ability for the police to use previous criminal records to determine whether to hand out a notice could be an important prompt to improve data sharing and, in doing so, save lives.
I appreciate that this is rather technical but, given the current failures in the system, we need to use all the ammunition we can. I hope the Minister might be able to respond sympathetically to the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to contribute on my Amendment 50, which is supported by my noble friend Lord Paddick, who brings with him his vast experience in policing matters.
The amendment would ensure that a specified public authority complied so far as reasonably practical with a request made to it, including by the provision of information. The wording proposed is essential and further strengthens the power of the commissioner. “Specified public authority” is clearly defined in Clause 15(3).
I mentioned at Second Reading my serious concern about the way some agencies, including the police and local policing bodies, have dealt with serious crimes. The position is more acute now during the lockdown. A number of pieces of research point to increasing violence and online-facilitated child sexual abuse, which is an ugly feature of our society.
We are aware of how easy it is to ignore these problems through lack of action, as clearly demonstrated by the Manchester police force. In the 12-month period reviewed by inspectors, the Manchester force had recorded 77.7% of reported crimes, a drop of 11.3% from 2018. The report further stated that one in five of all crimes and one in four serious violent crimes are not recorded. The force is probably the second largest in the country and it failed to record 80,000 crimes in that year. This is shocking. We do not know the background to those serious crimes. How many involved rape and serious domestic assault? Of course, I do not refer to the CPS at this stage, because a review is ongoing.
Has the Home Office asked the remaining police forces to provide information on non-recording of crimes? We will never know. Our amendment would ensure that it would be for public bodies not only to comply with a request but to provide a breakdown of such information, which would help victims with counselling and other services provided in local areas.
I have never quite understood why we need to be so secretive. One should not have to rely on the Freedom of Information Act to obtain such information. It should be provided by all agencies listed in Clause 15(3). Our amendment would ensure that all agencies recorded complaints, with those of domestic abuse being a top priority for the commissioner.
We have heard repeated questions in your Lordships’ House about the serious crimes of rape and domestic violence. We are thankful to a large number of charities which provide shelters for victims and for the valuable work done by volunteers, but that is not enough. We need to do more. We want police and crime commissioners to set out objectives for their areas as identified by the domestic abuse commissioner.
Any administrative system which is not properly monitored is bound to fail. Monitoring is the outcome of any policy adopted. It is not good enough to say that we have legislation to tackle domestic abuse. We must ensure that we look systematically at outcomes and take measures to address any anomalies identified.
We have lots of past examples involving similar issues to reflect on: stop and search is one. The Scarman report following the Brixton disorders of the 1980s clearly identified excesses. We now ensure that all incidents are recorded and that measures taken are proportionate and intelligence-based. Let us hope that our amendment will go some way in building the confidence of the community in this legislation.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 23, 28 and 62 in this group, to which my name is attached. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for moving the first of these amendments and for comprehensively covering their purpose. I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the register of interests in that I am a vice-chair of the Local Government Association.
Amendments 23 and 28, supported by London School of Economics research, make explicit the importance of utilising data and technology in the prevention, reporting and detection of domestic abuse and the commissioner’s important role in supporting this. Examples include encouraging the use of new “silent” methods of reporting abuse—especially important during lockdown—and using artificial intelligence methods, alongside better data usage, to determine the likelihood of repeated abuse.
Amendment 62, again based on LSE research, would ensure that, when the need for a handing out a domestic abuse protection notice was being considered, senior police officers could take into account any previous related criminality and convictions held by the alleged perpetrator. LSE research has shown that previous convictions can be a key indicator of the potential for future incidents of domestic abuse and yet are not currently taken into account when they should be regarded as a priority by any police officer considering handing out a DAPN.
Having access to the criminal history of the alleged perpetrator should be a crucial aspect of decision-making. The amendment would improve data sharing to strengthen the ability of the police to make informed, and potentially life-saving, decisions. It would enable immediate protection for survivors following a domestic abuse incident; for example, by requiring a perpetrator to leave the victim’s home for up to 48 hours.
Currently, there are many significant issues with data sharing that can have serious effects on police forces’ ability to identify, prevent and tackle domestic abuse. Not having a systematic way of recording the same person, victim or perpetrator often means that repeat victims or perpetrators are not spotted or that no action is taken to protect and prevent.
Moreover, police forces do not share data systematically, apart from the police national computer, and that only records charges. Even more concerning, there is no data or systematic information exchange between non-profit and police, so abusers are able to be invisible to the police. That is a particular worry right now, when many people are hidden from sight.
There are many examples of where better use of technology and data can help tackle abuse, including helping to determine what level of danger someone may be in so that they can receive help as quickly as possible, and prioritising police resources and responding to domestic abuse calls accordingly. Using machine-learning prediction will go a long way to supporting those who desperately need it.
My Lords, I added my name to speak to this group, primarily in support of Amendment 23. I, too, declare my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association. This matter has been magisterially covered by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, so anything I say will be a mere shadow of what he and the other speakers have put down.
I, too, received the briefings, both before Second Reading and more recently, from the London School of Economics. I pay great tribute to it for having brought that matter to the attention of Members of this House. At Second Reading, I and other noble Lords—in particular the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who has just spoken—commented on the failure of crime recording to pick up many cases, particularly cases of domestic abuse. In defence of those who are charged with the recording of suspected crimes, especially domestic abuse, they are often difficult to identify in the snowstorm of all the other issues that may be involved. Indeed, domestic abuse may not be the primary purpose of the initiating call to the police or some other agency.
Professor Gadd of the University of Manchester, to whom I had the privilege of speaking last week, suggested to me that we need to be much more curious in our responses to crime, and in particular possible abuse. Complex patterns of behaviour and the way in which they manifest themselves are meat and drink to data analysts. It seems to me that if big tech companies can build up accurate pictures of all our various spending preferences and other things, so too can algorithms help us spot and codify trends of abuse.
I do not claim expertise in artificial intelligence, but I know about the need for accurate input data and, of course, we have had problems with police recorded crime. This obviously has not been helped by failings to record offences in, I would say, several police forces over quite a number of years and, of course, the recent loss of data from the police national computer. Even so, the negative prediction rate of 11.5%, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to and which the LSE comments on, must be a matter for some significant concern, given the proportion that domestic violence, and repeat behaviour of that, represents as a component of all crime. Any machine-learned means of reducing this, and with it the tragic outcomes that cost this country so much in torment and treasure, must have a place. That is why I support this group of amendments, and Amendment 23 in particular.
However, collecting all the data in the world, as has been pointed out, is not going to be a great deal of use if it is not consistently collated, made available at the right time and shared with people who have a need to see it at the appropriate moment. The sort of checklists that have been referred to under the DASH system—a number of standard questions, consistently recorded, collated and available at the earliest possible stages of a proposed intervention—would, I am certain, be invaluable. There, I am satisfied that technology can help. I do not think that this requires reinvention but better management, oversight and adoption of appropriate IT systems. This would help reduce human errors and omissions. Above all, it is about avoiding unnecessary risk and optimising resources, as has been pointed out. This necessitates good training of call handlers and, as I say, being altogether more inquisitive and interrogative of data and callers to see what is actually lying behind the call. Otherwise, I do not think that we will make the best use of what IT offers. That apart, I believe that these amendments are extremely important in pointing a way forward.
My Lords, it might sound peculiar to say that I have great reservations about amendments that seem so sensible in putting forward a better use of technology, AI and data. What is there to argue with? However, I have some very big concerns about this set of amendments.
Using data as a predictive tool to improve preventive interactions sounds like common sense but could mean adopting a pre-crime approach that criminalises and demonises people when no crime has been committed. It can also be fatalistic and get things very wrong. One noble Lord made the point that algorithms can predict our likes and dislikes based on what we buy. Well, if you could see what Amazon predicts I will like, based on what I bought at Christmas, you would know that depending on algorithmic predictions in something as serious as criminal justice cases would be a mistake. We should be very wary of going down that road.
I think it is important to protect civil liberties, even in our eagerness to protect those at potential risk of being abused. When the likelihood of repeated abuse is based on data of previous convictions, I worry about branding someone as an abuser in perpetuity. We have to ensure that we do not forget redemption, second chances, the possibility of learning one’s lesson and rehabilitation. We have long since rejected the abhorrent practice of branding women with the letter A for adultery—a barbaric practice consigned to the past—and we must be wary of not metaphorically branding people as abusers through being cavalier about using data to predict future behaviour. We also have to consider the possibility of the police or the authorities undermining an individual’s life or job prospects on the grounds of an indelible label—branded an abuser forever. I worry about data being discussed in that way.
To take another issue, that of hate crime, we have seen problems with how data retention is being used. We already know that when no crime has been committed, non-crime hate incidents are stored and accessed by third parties and can be used as part of the DBS checks used by potential employers and other authorities. So I think we need to be very cautious here. In Amendment 62, the police can access previous related criminality and convictions when handing out a DAPN, which is after all a non-criminal sanction. We just need to be hesitant about saying that we can tell, fatalistically, what someone is going to do.
I am also concerned that data sharing is being talked about as though it is an obvious answer in preventive work. Data sharing is a contentious and important issue and we need to take it seriously in terms of this Bill. Sometimes under the guise of multi-agency work and precautionary inventions and policy, there may be a temptation to forget why we as a society understand that sharing data is something that should be done with great care for civil liberties and our commitment to the right to privacy. We even have special GDPR legislation—which in my view is overly bureaucratic and overzealous, but that is not the point. That makes a fuss if data sharing happens when, for example, theatre ticket data is shared with another arts organisation. That can be illegal. Therefore, just because we care so passionately about stopping domestic abuse, we should not be cavalier about data sharing. In intimate and family matters, data sharing needs to be handled sensitively.
Since the Covid emergency, we have become perhaps less vigilant about sharing our personal data, for example with track and trace. However, this is an emergency and not the new normal. Normal concerns about data sharing touch on important matters about who has access to data and our personal information. We rightly worry about the irresponsible sharing of intimate data concerning our medical histories or interpersonal relationships. I therefore either need reassurance to accept these amendments or will be objecting to them. I need reassurance that in our eagerness to protect victims of domestic abuse, we do not forget that data is not just a pragmatic, technocratic matter; its misuse can destroy lives. This is a political issue, and a matter of civil liberties that we take it seriously.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, particularly in following the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. Before I speak, I apologise to the Hansard writers; I was asked for my notes in advance and said “Well, here’s the notes, but there’s no guarantee that I will stick to them”. That is certainly the case, in the light of two developments.
First, there was the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. I agree with everything she said about the need for care and caution in dealing with data and algorithms, and the way things are going in the future. I have no problem whatever with that. However, I will speak positively in support of Amendments 23 and 28. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath on his great opening speech, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, who also spoke on those two amendments.
Secondly, I have had my feet and legs cut from under me, to a degree, by the great response that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, gave on the group starting with Amendment 21, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. She referred to pressure from me, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, for a review of how tagging might be employed. We had a meeting 10 days or so ago, at which I raised that issue. I said that I was not happy about the view expressed on alcohol by the Minister responsible for safeguarding, Victoria Atkins, at that meeting but, in fairness to her, she has responded very positively to the views we expressed about the potential need to use tagging in the area of domestic abuse. I hope that, in the context of our later debate on stalking, the Government will look at the use of tagging in a positive way—applying, of course, care and caution.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for the work that she has done on tagging. She worked with the previous Mayor of London, whom I congratulate on a day when he is getting a kicking; the current Prime Minister was wise enough to see that there was a growth in abuse linked to alcohol, not a lessening, and that one way to slow it down might be to tag people who were drinking excessively. They were likely then to be sentenced and sent down; instead, they were tagged. I have met a lot of people in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings who have been tagged. They would rather have the tag than be sent to jail, given the stigma that goes with jail compared to being tagged, which is then forgotten about. I believe this can be applied equally in dealing with individual perpetrators. I have worked for perpetrators and tried to defend their interests as best I could, to get them on the right track. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has recognised, tagging can be done very usefully; in turn, I think it can be used for stalking.
I am grateful to the LSE and, in particular, Manchester University for the work that they are doing. I believe we are opening up an entirely new area in which we need to do ever more work, not less. We are short of resources. I am grateful to the Royal College of Psychiatrists for the assistance that it gives me but we are extraordinarily short of psychiatrists. We need to spend time with individuals. We have to look for technology developments that enable us to gather the data which helps with identification, and to find positive ways in which algorithms can assist people. Why should algorithms be used solely for the benefit of profits for the gambling industry and so on? Why can they not be turned the other way, so that public services can use them beneficially to identify the facts about individuals and bring those facts to their attention, and then offer support and assistance to move in a different direction?
That is the message which I give to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. We do not look back and worry all the time. Yes, we have cares and concerns, but we look to see what form of opportunities are opening up through AI and other technologies. Tagging is an old-fashioned technology; I was going to speak about that but I could spend some time on AI as well, which I will not. However, there is much opportunity here for us. In particular, we need to look at the segregated way in which our police forces operate. That approach has been worth while and beneficial, but it has had its day. Now, technology encompasses the whole world, not just Europe, and we need to see how we, in turn, can come together and work for positive outcomes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, has withdrawn so I now call the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale.
I do not intend to repeat any of the comments made by my noble friend Lord Hunt in his very powerful and fascinating introduction. I hope that he has, at the very least, sparked off a debate that will continue. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response. I do not think that it would be fair to describe either that introduction or the actual content of the amendments as cavalier, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, did. I absolutely sympathise with being cautious in the use of data and careful with civil liberties. But if we read the amendments proposed by my noble friend Lord Hunt and others, to describe them as cavalier is a bit of an exaggeration. I hope that the Minister will respond positively on the issue. We will see where the debate goes next.
I will speak to Amendment 62, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, which is particularly important. In Clause 22, which it seeks to amend, there is a perfectly reasonable list of matters to be considered by a police officer when considering a domestic abuse protection notice. Adding
“the previous criminal history of P”,
who is the person under consideration, to that list would make an incredible amount of common sense, as well as having real, practical impact on the day-to-day work of police officers. It would also be particularly reassuring for victims, who obviously might have an opinion; Clause 22 outlines anyway that their opinion should be considered. Amendment 62, on previous criminal history, is important.
I add, partly in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that this amendment does not suggest that past accusations made against somebody would automatically override other considerations or be disclosed publicly. What it suggests is that their previous criminal history might well be relevant in the determination of such a notice. That is indisputable; we know all the background, history and data on how often people reoffend in this area. We know an awful lot about the psychology involved in domestic abuse. It would a barrier to good decision-making and active prevention if police officers were not able to take into account previous criminal history. I strongly support Amendment 62 and look forward to hearing what the Minister says about the earlier amendments.
My Lords, as a former police officer, I find being critical of the police difficult but sometimes necessary. Couple that with the fact that I am a survivor of domestic abuse and all I can say is: wish me luck with this one.
I will first speak to Amendment 62, which deals with a senior police officer having to take into account the previous criminal history of the person he is considering giving a domestic abuse prevention notice to. I find myself in a similar position to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, in that, regrettably, I was not provided with the briefings from the LSE. We need to be careful, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, has highlighted. Clearly, police officers attending an incident of domestic abuse should routinely check on the antecedents of the parties involved, but the issuing of a domestic abuse prevention notice should be based on whether the police officer has reasonable grounds for believing that it is necessary to give the notice to protect the person from domestic abuse there and then.
The fact that someone has no criminal record does not mean that they do not present a danger to the complainant, and neither does someone having a criminal past mean that they present a danger to this particular victim. I draw a parallel with someone accused of a criminal offence, whose previous convictions are not normally revealed to a court until after their guilt has been established because the court must determine the facts of the case before it. Having said that, previous evidence of abuse of the current victim by the perpetrator in question is clearly an important factor.
Amendments 23 and 28 in this group require the domestic abuse commissioner to encourage good practice in the appropriate use of data and technology to aid in the prevention, reporting and detection of domestic abuse, including making recommendations to public authorities in these areas. The fact that we are debating these amendments has given a great opportunity for the LSE research to be brought to the attention of noble Lords.
As such, what the amendments are asking for is a subset of Clause 7(2)(b), on
“making recommendations to any public authority”.
While this is important, I am not sure it requires to be in the Bill. However, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, highlighted important research into how artificial intelligence—AI—and machine learning could be used to improve responses to domestic abuse. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, also highlighted the importance of silent reporting, especially during lockdown.
As my noble friend Lord Dholakia has said, Amendment 50, to which I have added my name, allows the commissioner to request information from public authorities. We have heard his concerns, reinforced by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, about the failure of the Greater Manchester Police to record crime that has been reported to it, particularly violent crime.
This has been a recurrent theme with the police service over the years, particularly with the police failing to take domestic violence seriously. From my own professional experience, I recall getting into trouble, many years ago, when I arrested a man who had broken a chair over his wife’s head—something that I should not have done, according to the prevailing culture at the time, because victims of domestic abuse often do not want action taken against the perpetrator. In this case, the victim had to be treated in hospital for her injuries, and, once treated, she did not want to take action against her husband, something I found difficult to understand until I became a victim of domestic violence myself.
From my own personal experience as a survivor, I know that perpetrators of domestic violence are very good at convincing you that there is no alternative to the abusive relationship you are in and that the pain they inflict is the price you have to pay for their affection. I must tell anyone in such an abusive relationship: you can, and you deserve to, have a loving relationship without the pain.
Although attitudes have changed in the police service, with prosecution of domestic abuse possible even without the consent of the victim—if there is physical evidence of assault, for example—we need to ensure that the police do not slip back into old practices, as Greater Manchester Police appears to have done in not recording crime, including violent crime and, no doubt, incidents of domestic abuse.
The Minister wrote to those who spoke at Second Reading and addressed this issue directly, including the issues in the Greater Manchester Police, following the publication on 10 December of the findings of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescues Services’ inspection of the service GMP provided to victims of crime. What the Minister says in that letter, for me, gives more cause for concern than reassurance. It says that the inspection is the first of HMICFRS’s new victim services assessment that assesses the end-to-end experience of victims, from the first report of a crime to its outcome. In this case, it included an inspection of the effectiveness of GMP’s crime recording processes. If this was the first inspection of this kind, what will future inspections of other forces unearth? GMP is unlikely to be alone.
If, as the letter says, since 2014, HMICFRS has carried out a discrete programme of police crime recording inspections, known as crime data integrity inspections, why have the problems at GMP only now been discovered? The Minister goes on to describe the process where HMICFRS makes recommendations to the chief officer of police for the force concerned, and says that “our expectation” is that the chief officer will take remedial action. Washing their hands of all responsibility, the Minister goes on to say that it is the responsibility of the local policing body, the mayor or police and crime commissioner to
“publish their comments and response to any recommendations for improvement made by HMICFRS.”
This is about the culture of the police service, which has in the past sought to reduce the pressure it is under by failing to record crime, including violent crime, and a culture that shies away from taking effective action against the perpetrators of domestic violence. This may be driven by the experience of reluctant victims, as I illustrated earlier, but perhaps it may also stem from a predominantly male police service that identifies with, or even empathises with, the perpetrator of domestic abuse. Yes, there have been improvements over the years, but what has been unearthed in Greater Manchester Police should set alarm bells ringing, not just at HMICFRS or among local policing bodies but at the Home Office and in the office of the Home Secretary.
In a private conversation with me, a former very senior police officer speculated that diversity goes out of the window when the police service comes under pressure, as it has done over the past decade, with the savage cuts to police budgets and corresponding reductions in police officers, police community support officers and support staff. The evidence from GMP is that victim care may also be a casualty. I also cite the evidence of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that the police are not responding quickly enough because they are wrongly assessing the risk and have a lack of resources. Cuts to budgets, support staff and the money available for IT systems inhibit the kind of data analysis that the LSE is recommending.
The potential consequences for the victims of domestic abuse of soft-pedalling on issues surrounding diversity, and on the failure to record crime, are alarming, and the Home Secretary needs to take responsibility. This is central, as all the potential positive outcomes from the Bill will be impaired if we do not know the nature and extent of the problem. That, in turn, relies on victims of domestic abuse having confidence in the police service and knowing that, when they report domestic abuse to the police, they will be believed and it will be recorded and acted upon.
My Lords, how we protect, store and use data affects almost every aspect of our lives. The use of data to protect victims and catch the perpetrators of domestic violence, with encouragement of best practice by the domestic abuse commissioner, is something that every noble Lord should support. Data can tell us much about what has gone on before and that can inform our thinking going forward.
Amendment 23, proposed by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, would, in proposed new paragraph (e), add to the list of things in which the domestic abuse commissioner must encourage good practice. My noble friend gave us examples based on the LSE research and said how important a proper risk assessment is in triggering the effective and proper use of resources to protect victims. I look forward to the response to this from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford. As I said on a previous group, if we are told that the amendment is not necessary, it is incumbent on the Government to set out very clearly how they believe the powers in the Bill are sufficient to deal with the concerns raised in the amendments in respect of the general duty under Clause 7(1) and (2) and any other proposed legislation. We would like to have that clarity from the noble Baroness.
Amendment 28, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, would add two things that the domestic abuse commissioner may do in pursuance of the general duty under Clause 7. Again, we need clarity from the Government on this. My fear is that the duty could be viewed as so wide and open that things could fall through the gaps. We need something to underpin that, with an indication from the Government of what this list of things should cover. I hope we all agree about the good intent behind the amendment. The risk is that we are being too vague to deliver what we all want to deliver.
Amendment 50, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Paddick, is very reasonable, but, again, if the Government view it as unnecessary, we need to hear very clearly whether they are relying on Clause 15(1) to ensure that the domestic abuse commissioner has the necessary power and that there is no doubt that co-operation includes the provision of data from the public authority in question. In the past, we have seen public authorities query the need to provide such data. I never want to hear them giving some spurious reason relating to GDPR or any other regulation, or saying that they cannot provide data due to custom and practice. We have all heard those infuriating and unacceptable reasons given in the past, so it is clear that we need to make sure that that cannot happen again.
Amendment 62, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, seems to be a no-brainer. I have never been a police officer and am not a lawyer but, when I speak in this House, I try to apply plain common sense to things. That has served me reasonably well over the last few years. If a person who might be served a domestic abuse protection notice has a criminal record and the nature of the offences could be relevant, surely that is valid information for a police officer to have available when making a decision on whether to serve a notice. My noble friend highlighted past failures in the system, so that is a risk that we should avoid.
I listened very carefully to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley. I agree that of course we have to be very careful about how people’s data is used, but if somebody has convictions for violence, such as violence against women and other serious offences, it is not unreasonable that a police officer should be aware of that when considering whether to serve a notice. Clause 22 lists four matters that a police officer needs to look at when considering whether a person, referred to as “P”, could be subject to a notice. They are all very reasonable and a police officer considering a person’s previous criminal history might be the most important.
I am not suggesting that if someone is nicked for driving while disqualified that is not a stupid and irresponsible thing to do, but if someone is nicked for serious violent offences, maybe against women or previous partners, it is not unreasonable for the officer to be aware of that and take account of it, along with the other four points listed, when making a decision. My noble friend Lord McConnell made a similar point.
I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that previous records do not necessarily inform future behaviour and that people can change and be rehabilitated, but I do not think it is unreasonable at least to be aware of them when it comes to certain offences. Having all the facts in front of you means that you can look at the situation in the round when making a judgment. I can also see a situation where, if someone had assaulted or hurt a previous partner and no one knew about it, and that person had not been given a notice and then someone got injured or killed, there would be uproar, with people saying, “What’s going on here? Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t the police officer know that this person had recently committed serious offences and they weren’t taken into account?” Therefore, this is about applying some common sense and acting reasonably, and in that way I think we can find a way forward. I am sure that the noble Baroness will do that, and I look forward to her response.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his very comprehensive introduction, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, for setting out the case for her amendments.
We can all agree with the premise behind Amendments 23 and 28—namely, that we should promote the use of data and technology, as the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, said, in a cautious rather than cavalier way, to aid in the prevention, reporting and detection of domestic abuse.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who speaks on this Bill from a unique position, as both a former police officer and a survivor of domestic abuse.
The Domestic Abuse Bill introduces a range of new measures, including the use of data and technology to protect and support victims of domestic abuse and monitor perpetrators. For example, as we discussed earlier, the domestic abuse protection order can impose both prohibitions and positive requirements on perpetrators, including an electronic monitoring requirement, or tagging. I am happy that today I have made the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, so happy, because we have now come a long way since our disagreement on liqueur chocolates. That is an in-joke that only some noble Lords might get.
Victims of domestic abuse will be eligible for one or more special measures in the criminal, civil and family courts. Such special measures could include the use of a live televised link in a courtroom to enable a witness to give evidence during a trial or proceedings from outside the courtroom, and the use of pre-recorded video interviews before the trial or other proceedings.
The Bill provides for a pilot of mandatory polygraph examinations for domestic abuse offenders released on licence. I will not dwell on that now, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, has indicated that he wants a debate on Clause 69 when we get there in a few days’ time. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, outlined the real benefits of machine-learning predictions for police. Of course, technology is already a key component of the police response to domestic abuse.
At this juncture, I will refer to the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Paddick, on the HMICFRS inspection of Greater Manchester Police and the victims of crime. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said that what was unearthed should set alarm bells ringing, and I agree. He also said that if this is the first assessment, what will future assessments show to other police authorities? However, that is not a reason not to do it, and it will give cause for concern to other police authorities about how they might make improvements if necessary. We are not washing our hands of it. I brought the devolution Bill through your Lordships’ House some years ago. Devolution is an opportunity for local people to have a better determination of their own future through their elected representatives, in this case the mayor and the deputy mayor for policing.
We welcome HMICFRS’s decision to escalate the force to its police performance oversight group, which includes senior leaders from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the College of Policing, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the Home Office. It met on Monday 26 January to scrutinise GMP’s plans for improvement and to consider whether additional support from within the sector may be necessary to support the force in quickly delivering the necessary step change in performance. We welcome HMICFRS’s decision to reinspect the force in six months’ time to assess progress; that is likely to be in May. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, outlined, we expect the mayoral response to the report to be published no later than 4 February.
Police forces use technological solutions to provide emergency protection to victims, such as TecSOS devices that provide victims with immediate connection to the police at the touch of a button, or the Hollie Guard app, which allows the victim to send an alert to chosen contacts if they are in danger, notifying them of the victim’s location and capturing audio and video evidence. There is also the Bright Sky app, which professionals and victims can use to access information and support on domestic abuse. It also enables the recording of evidence of abusive behaviour. Clare’s law also comes to mind, allowing data on partners’ previous abuse history, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, also reminded me of the silent calling facility, which is such a benefit to people who cannot ask for help but who are in danger. As part of a police investigation of a domestic violence incident and any subsequent prosecution, the footage from body-worn video can also play a key part in building up an irrefutable case for the prosecution. As for the use of data, I agree that it is equally important to properly understand the needs of victims and to put in place the policies and services to meet those needs. That is why, for example, the first duty on tier 1 local authorities under Part 4 of the Bill is to assess the need for domestic abuse support in their areas. Robust and reliable data is the key to this in the context of Part 4 and elsewhere.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, outlined the benefits of machine learning in the assessment of risk. We have worked with the College of Policing to develop the domestic abuse risk assessment, which is an improvement on the established DASH risk assessment process. Evidence-based research helped us develop that, and with a number of charities, we have also developed the Domestic Abuse Matters training programme, which has been academically proven to increase officers’ empathy with victims, and their understanding of abuse. Things are improving. We have come a long way from the days when police officers saw domestic abuse as “just a domestic”.
While I support the underlying premise of Amendments 23 and 28, I hope that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord will agree that the amendments themselves are not needed, since Clause 7 already sets out broad functions for the domestic abuse commissioner in encouraging good practice for the prevention and detection of domestic abuse. This will include good practice in relation to the use of data and technology.
On Amendment 50, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that the duty to co-operate with the commissioner, as provided for in Clause 15, extends to the provision of information. The Explanatory Notes to the Bill make this clear. This is one of those occasions when we believe it is preferable to keep the duty at a high level. There is always the risk, when a general proposition is followed by particular examples, of leaving the impression that the list of examples is exhaustive—or, indeed, that something is left out. We do not want inadvertently to leave the impression that the provision of information is the only form of co-operation.
Amendment 62 jumps ahead to Part 3 of the Bill. The amendment seeks to ensure that police take into account an individual’s previous criminality and convictions when considering issuing them with a domestic abuse protection notice. The matters to be considered listed in Clause 22 are designed to ensure that police take into account the impact of the notice on those directly or indirectly affected by it. The power to issue a notice enables the police to require an individual to leave their home for a period of up to 24 hours, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick said, when dealing with the immediate crisis. These provisions therefore provide an important safeguard by ensuring that the police give careful consideration to the impact of the notice on those affected when they are exercising this quite significant power. Again, the spirit of the amendment is certainly one that we can support.
When deciding whether a notice is necessary to protect a victim from domestic abuse, the police will consider a range of factors, including the history and the context of abuse, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, outlined. The College of Policing’s guidance on domestic abuse makes it clear that police should carry out comprehensive checks when responding to a domestic abuse incident, including: the alleged perpetrator’s history of abuse in relation to the victim, or previous victims; previous risk assessments; court orders or injunctions; convictions; and child protection information. Importantly, these checks ensure that intelligence on incidents and behaviours that have not resulted in a criminal conviction is considered. Furthermore, the draft statutory guidance for police on the domestic abuse protection notices and orders, which we published ahead of Committee, makes it clear that when deciding whether to issue a notice, the police should also consider other relevant information and evidence, such as incident reports from previous callouts, including those against other victims, and any intelligence from other agencies or organisations.
Having highlighted these important issues, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will be content to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I have received two requests to speak after the Minister, from the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and Lord Kennedy of Southwark.
My Lords, in fact the Minister answered my question in almost her final sentence. It was about the status of callouts when considering this data. Police callouts are available to family courts and to sentencing criminal courts in domestic abuse cases. My question was going to be about the availability of that information to DAPOs, but I think that the Minister answered it in the affirmative.
I think the Minister’s answer will again be yes, as she clarified this issue in her last remarks. Clause 22, on these other matters, says
“a senior police officer must, among other things, consider”,
and then lists four issues that they must consider. Among those “other things” is of course someone’s previous record. I ask her to clarify that further.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and to the Minister for her sympathetic response.
I think we are all seeking the same thing. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia said, one cannot underestimate the importance of data in measuring crime, monitoring police actions and focusing on outcomes. That is why the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, to whom I am very grateful, emphasised the importance of the use of data and new methods of technology in helping to address what I think we all agree—this is part of the reason for the Bill today—has been the very patchy response to domestic abuse that we have seen in previous years. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, spoke very wisely about the better management and oversight of IT solutions and the contribution that they can make.
I listened with great care to the reservations of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. As she said, what sometimes sounds like common sense could be fatalistic and could undermine liberties. One would be unwise to dismiss that out of hand. As with many things, there are balances here: a balance of risks and a balance of opportunities. The issue for me is that the current methods of prediction are falling short and, from the LSE research, it looks as though we could find a way to get the predictive rate up. In view of the failures in relation to domestic abuse, this is a very important consideration indeed.
I was interested to hear my noble friend Lord Brooke talk about tagging. He is a real expert on the impact of alcohol on domestic abuse and more generally. I was grateful for his support, as I am to my noble friend Lord McConnell. He made some important remarks about being cautious over the use of data but acknowledged that my amendments themselves are not cavalier and, in a sense, are an encouragement to enable better practice in this area.
I was very touched by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who spoke very sensitively about his own experience and how we might learn from it. He was of course right to reflect on funding issues and the impact they have had on the police in using technology to support victims and tackle domestic abuse as a whole. My noble friend Lord Kennedy thought this was being proposed as a common-sense solution, and I very much agree with him.
The Minister was sympathetic, and I am grateful to her for that. She talked about the work that her department is doing with the College of Policing on risk assessment. It might be that she could encourage the college to talk to the LSE about its work to see whether that could inform further developments in future.
On Amendment 62, she has made it clear that the use of the phrase “other relevant information” essentially covers the point that I have raised, and interventions by my noble friends Lord Ponsonby and Lord Kennedy have confirmed that.
This has been a very good debate, and I hope it has been a constructive contribution to encouraging police forces to use data more effectively. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 24. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
24: Clause 7, page 4, line 24, at end insert—
“( ) assessing, monitoring, and publishing information about, the behaviours of people who carry out domestic abuse and matters which may contribute to such behaviours;”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would add provisions around the monitoring and assessing of perpetrator behaviours to the list of things the Commissioner may do in pursuance of the general duty.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Burt and I have Amendments 24, 25 and 26 in this group. Clause 7(2) sets out the powers that the domestic abuse commissioner can exercise in pursuit of her functions. I read that subsection as not being exhaustive, and I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that when responding to the debate. I ask because, as I say, subsection (2) is about powers, not functions, and Clause 10 gives the commissioner the usual facilitative—if that is the word—incidental and conducive powers.
In any event, Amendment 24 would include powers relating to perpetrators, including words similar to those in Clause 7(2)(a), which relates to services to people affected by domestic abuse. I appreciate that there are other paragraphs—(c) is one of them—that are not limited to victims, but a specific reference to why people abuse seems appropriate. I think we can agree, since this is a point that has been made by a number of speakers and we will come back to it, that many noble Lords regard this as a crucial issue. I certainly do.
Amendment 26 would extend the power in Clause 7(2)(g). That power as drafted provides for the commissioner being able to co-operate or work jointly with public authorities, voluntary organisations and other persons. We would extend that to making recommendations to voluntary organisations and others. Under Clause 7(2)(b) the commissioner can make recommendations to a public authority. I think that all those to whom recommendations can be made should be included in the clause.
The Bill as drafted regards co-operation and joint working with public authorities as being likely to prompt recommendations—hence the Bill before us— but co-operation and joint working with voluntary organisations are not exactly the same. I would have said it was implicit that recommendations to them could follow, were it not for the distinction in the drafting of the Bill.
Amendment 25 is a consequential bit of drafting. I beg to move.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.
My Lords, I cannot repeat my noble friend Lord Rooker’s admirable brevity, but I welcome this group of amendments. I particularly support Amendment 24, which seeks to add a list of things that the commissioner may do in pursuance of a general duty.
The noble Baroness is right that provisions around monitoring and assessing perpetrator behaviour are very important. Clause 7(2) already sets out:
“The things that the Commissioner may do in pursuance of the general duty under subsection (1) include … assessing, monitoring, and publishing information about, the provision of services to people affected by domestic abuse … making recommendations to any public authority about the exercise of its functions … undertaking or supporting … the carrying out of research … providing information, education or training … taking other steps to increase public awareness of domestic abuse … consulting public authorities”
and others; and co-operate, or work jointly with, public authorities. Reading the list, it does not seem to include monitoring and assessing perpetrator behaviour. As the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Burt, have illustrated, this seems to be a gap, particularly as the Bill specifies in Clause 7(1):
“The Commissioner must encourage good practice in … the prevention, detection … and prosecution of offences involving domestic abuse.”
I would have thought that monitoring and assessing perpetrator behaviours would be an important part of that responsibility.
This is an important but neglected issue. A piece for Community Care by Ruth Hardy in 2017 that analysed serious case reviews found that domestic abuse was a feature of more than half the reviews carried out between 2011 and 2014, but that while much practice and research is focused on working with victims and survivors of domestic abuse, the same cannot be said of perpetrators. A report some years ago by inspectorates, including Ofsted, found that social services and partner agencies are not focusing enough on perpetrators. Last April, an article by Amanda L Robinson and Anna Clancy for the British Society of Criminology identified that a focus on developing and implementing effective interventions for victims had dominated the policy and practice agenda for nearly two decades. They commented that, in contrast, there has been relatively less success in establishing effective interventions for perpetrators. A systematic review of European evidence concluded:
“We do not yet know what works best, for whom, and under what circumstances.”
I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to say that legislation covers this, but it is important that we make the point that it would have been helpful to have been more explicit that perpetrator behaviour is a relevant part of the responsibilities of the commissioner.
My Lords, this short group is another attempt by the Lib Dem team to ensure that the domestic abuse commissioner has all the powers that she needs. Amendment 24 addresses the need for the commissioner to be able to research and publish information about perpetrators. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his supportive comments on this. We believe that unless we understand perpetrator behaviour, we will never be able to tackle it effectively and make effective interventions. Amendment 26 would widen the recommendations the commissioner can make to voluntary organisations and others as well as to public authorities. Again, we are attempting to widen the remit and those powers. These are small amendments but we hope they are helpful in spelling out the extent of the remit the commissioner should have.
My Lords, I support the three amendments in this group, which raise important issues. It is right that the domestic abuse commissioner should also assess, monitor and publish information about perpetrator behaviour, as getting more information about and understanding of perpetrator behaviour will be crucial for informing us about how it should be handled in future. The noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, has tabled a more comprehensive amendment, Amendment 167, on a strategic plan. I was pleased to sign it, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull. Rather than these amendments, Amendment 167 probably gives us the detail we need . However, in principle, I support the amendments before us today and will speak in support of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, when we get to it later in Committee.
Amendments 25 and 26 raise important issues and widen the scope of the domestic abuse commissioner’s remit to make recommendations to voluntary organisations. I fully support that. I am conscious that Amendment 26 would add the words about “making recommendations to” organisations outside the UK. I am very supportive of that, although some of our behaviour in recent years has not helped our standing outside the United Kingdom—but that is probably for another day. In principle, I am happy to support these amendments and look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank noble Lords for their brevity on this short but important group, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for his commendable example. All the amendments in this group are to Clause 7(2), which I am happy to confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is a non-exhaustive list of the things that the commissioner may do in pursuance of her general duty under subsection (1). To be clear, subsection (1) sets out the parameters of the commissioner’s functions, not subsection (2).
Among the commissioner’s functions is encouraging good practice in relation to the prevention of domestic abuse and
“the identification of … people who carry out domestic abuse”.
That being the case, I have no doubt that monitoring and assessing perpetrator behaviours falls within the sphere of the activities that the commissioner could undertake in her pursuance of a general duty. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said, that is a relevant and important facet to consider.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, said, we will debate later an amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Bertin relating to the need for a perpetrator strategy, so I will not dwell on that issue now. The question is whether the indicative list of activities in subsection (2) is the right one. It is the nature of an indicative list that it is illustrative, as it is here, so I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that there is sufficient latitude in the commissioner’s general duty to enable her to undertake work in relation to addressing the behaviour of perpetrators.
On Amendments 25 and 26, I again make the point that subsection (2) is an indicative list of activities. It does not preclude the commissioner making recommendations to voluntary bodies if she wishes to do so. However, Clause 7(2)(b) needs to be read alongside Clause 16, which requires Ministers and public bodies specified in Clause 15 to respond to the commissioner’s recommendation within 56 days. We believe it is appropriate to limit this duty to respond to certain public bodies, given that it clearly puts demands and expectations on them.
Clause 7 does not preclude the commissioner making recommendations to voluntary organisations and others, but as there is no corresponding duty on them to respond to such recommendations the focus of Clause 7(2)(b) is properly on public authorities alone. I hope that assures the noble Baroness that Clause 7 already allows for the matters she wanted to explore with her amendment, and that on that basis she will be willing to withdraw it.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Burt called these small amendments. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I do not think that more words necessarily add to one’s case; I understood him to be supporting the point. Amendment 167 is about another duty. As I hoped I had made clear, I understand that Clause 7(2) is about powers while Clause 7(1) is about duties and functions. Amendment 167 is important but has a discrete function about creating a strategy. This amendment makes the point that work regarding perpetrators is wider than a strategy. We will come to Clause 16 on responses, to which reference has just been made, at a later point.
I still think that this is a slightly odd omission. I am glad to have confirmation that the list is not exhaustive. I cannot emulate the very senior lawyers involved in many of our debates, but any lawyers who are involved in this debate will recognise the term “sui generis”. It means that anything added to an existing list must be of the same type.
So it would not do any harm to mention perpetrators here, and it would make the point. I do not believe in legislation being used for messages, but something can sometimes be read into an omission. Of course, I will not pursue the matter now and I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 24.
Amendment 24 withdrawn.
Amendments 25 and 26 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 27. 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.
27: Clause 7, page 4, line 35, at end insert—
“(h) ensuring that nationwide psychological therapy services are available to couples experiencing conflict and potential domestic abuse.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that prevention of domestic abuse is a top priority for the Commissioner.
My Lords, I will speak also to Amendments 41 and 103 in my name, all of which focus on early intervention and the prevention of domestic abuse. They seek to avoid the need for ultimate criminal justice interventions. I should like to put on record that the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, has had to withdraw because she has to contribute in Grand Committee.
I fully support the Bill’s objectives as far as they go, but we must consider the consequences of domestic abuse for children and the need to intervene as soon as possible to prevent lifelong damage. As the Minister acknowledged in her summing up at Second Reading, we must prevent child victims of domestic abuse becoming the perpetrators of the next generation. One-third of them will become perpetrators unless we provide them with the help they need.
It is also important that the Bill promotes early intervention with couples who are experiencing conflict and potential domestic abuse. As it stands, the Bill will not achieve these vital objectives, but it would not be difficult to include a framework for effective prevention so that the Bill can achieve its full potential—and it really has a lot of potential.
Amendment 27 seeks to ensure that the commissioner focuses on her responsibility to encourage good practice in the prevention of domestic abuse—which of course is her first function. The amendment includes explicit reference to the need to ensure that psychological therapy services are available nationwide to couples experiencing conflict and potential domestic abuse.
Amendment 41 seeks to ensure that the commissioner’s advisory board includes at least one person who understands the importance of psychological therapy services to such high-risk couples and, most importantly, to their children. Amendment 103 seeks to ensure similar representation on local partnership boards.
The Law Society agrees with me that the Bill has
“excessive focus on criminal responses to domestic abuse.”
It goes on to say:
“It is crucial that victims of domestic abuse are able to access long-term support that aims to build resilience and confidence, rather than short-term protection by the courts and police.”
This is fundamentally important.
We know that large numbers of children across the UK are affected by domestic abuse. Estimates vary, but one suggests that the figure is just under one million. This is an awful lot of children. A group of children’s charities, including Hestia, has made the point that these children suffer severe mental health problems, often exhibited through aggressive and destructive behaviour. Pro Bono Economics estimates that the cost to the taxpayer of not providing this help is between £480 million and £1.4 billion.
I listened to the excellent debate on the parental alienation amendments. A number of noble Lords said that it is up to the courts to decide who is lying, and whether there is any foundation to an allegation of parental alienation. In my experience, by the time these cases reach the courts it can be almost impossible to determine where the lies began and where culpability lies—and by then the damage to the children will be extreme. Again, this is an argument in favour of early intervention with expert therapy—ideally family therapy. When the whole family sits together with a therapist, in a safe place, discussing things, the dynamics in a dysfunctional family become very clear and can be resolved. I was involved in this work many years ago. Family therapy can be extraordinarily powerful in resolving family problems.
I propose that therapy services for child victims of domestic abuse should continue to be provided by the NHS, rather than through local authorities. Following Jeremy Hunt’s excellent White Paper on child mental health, CCGs are currently funding mental health support teams in one-third of the country, providing NICE-recommended therapy to children and young people who need it, including victims of domestic abuse. These therapists work in schools, which is of course crucial. Children’s mental health problems are most likely to be identified in school. There should be a statutory obligation to provide these services across the country. I would be really interested to know whether the Minister agrees.
Section 55 places a duty on local authorities to provide support for victims of domestic abuse and their children who reside in “relevant accommodation”—which I take to mean a refuge. It is not clear that local authorities will have a statutory duty to ensure that psychological therapy is available, even to support adults or children in refuges. Of course, the situation is a good deal worse for the much greater number of domestic abuse victims, including children, who are not in refuges.
Amendment 176, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Polak, shows a strong commitment to support services for the victims of domestic abuse, which I applaud. Again, however, it gives no assurance that victims, including children, will be guaranteed an offer of professional therapy help.
The aim of these amendments is to ensure that the domestic abuse system is set up to take care of the mental health needs of all victims. This is important not just for individuals but for society as a whole, both now and in the future. I beg to move.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, have withdrawn. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for moving this amendment and pay tribute to her vast experience in this area and her constant fight to ensure that early intervention is part of our psychological landscape.
Psychological therapy is an essential cornerstone of our domestic abuse response and Amendment 27 is potentially one of the most important we shall have a chance to debate today. It places a requirement on the commissioner to ensure nationwide access to psychological therapy services for couples experiencing conflict and potential domestic abuse. As we have already heard, the vast majority of victims—an estimated 70%—never set foot in a refuge and remain at home or in alternative housing. Many go beyond the care of psychological therapy. A SafeLives report highlights that 80% of survivors think that interventions for perpetrators are a good idea—and not just for those experiencing domestic abuse themselves.
A main conclusion of Breaking Down the Barriers: Findings of the National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage was the call from survivors for trauma-informed support to break traumatic cycles. Here we should be looking—[Inaudible]—parent and child victims to receive trauma-informed support while the perpetrators of domestic abuse access a programme which is designed to change behaviour, rebuild relationships and keep families safe. Perpetrators can take part in a 20-week programme focusing on behaviour change. Their adult victims benefit from a mix of one-to-one sessions and group work through the 10-week integrated women’s support programme, where they look at their past experiences and build resilience. Confidence-building and well-being groups are also held. Children and young people have their own 10-week programme, which looks at the trauma they may have suffered, self-esteem issues, coping strategies, safety planning and support networks. They receive help to talk about their feelings and have a chance to meet other children who have been through similar traumas.
Although the Barnardo’s programme is more involved than the couples therapy suggested in the amendment, and includes programmes for children as well, the Barnardo’s model illustrates how effective intervention and therapy focused on the turbulence in the relationship are in addressing the scourge of domestic abuse and in changing behaviours.
Another programme I would like to mention is For Baby’s Sake, which rightly highlights that early intervention is the most effective way to break the cycle of domestic abuse. As I argued in the debate on my own amendment, early childhood—conception to age two—is an optimum time to intervene. Intervention during the first 1,001 days is not just crucial for the baby but trauma-informed support for the parents can prevent further toxic deterioration of their relationship as well.
This is also an effective time for intervention—we want to be pragmatic with this Bill. An evaluation by King’s College London of the For Baby’s Sake programme identified that the first 1,001 days of a baby’s life are the optimal time for intervention in the cycle of domestic abuse. Pregnancy and childbirth are major milestones in the lives of many mothers and fathers and the time when there is motivation to change. The transition to parenthood brings rewards as well as challenges for both parents. Support at this time can harness parents’ motivation and empower them to make changes for their baby and themselves.
As For Baby’s Sake highlights, present interventions have focused generally on supporting the needs of victims and survivors alone, and few seek also to target the causes and environments of domestic abuse, and its associated consequences, in conjunction with perpetrators and children. Even fewer interventions adopt a whole-family approach that seeks to address the mental health problems experienced by parents and protects and supports the mental health of the baby and other children in the family.
This amendment is about changing the cultural and social landscape around domestic abuse for the next generation. If we focus only on refuge and not intervention and rehabilitation, especially in the form of psychological therapy for couples, we miss out on a crucial piece of the weaponry for breaking the cycle of domestic abuse.
My Lords, the noble Baronesses who have spoken to this group of amendments are hugely qualified to speak on the issues of psychotherapy, and none more so than the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I have no such credentials, beyond being an observer of the human condition coming from an entirely different field altogether.
My interest in supporting this group of amendments comes from a profound belief that—as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said—rather than picking up the pieces after the event, early intervention before the damage in abusive relationships has reached its most pernicious stages must be an object of policy. Before we get to the stage of cranking into place all legal, prosecutorial, judicial and costly protective paraphernalia, the need to pay attention to psychological problems at a much earlier stage, or indeed as a preliminary step in later stages, seems an unavoidable conclusion. In support of that assertion, I need not go further than the domestic homicide reviews, cataloguing as they do the tragic endpoint of failure to intervene in time, but which consistently refer to much earlier and identifiable opportunities in the downward slope, at which points the problems could and should have been consciously noted and acted upon. Even if they do not end in homicide, I believe that similar trajectories occur in domestic abuse generally from childhood onwards.
To tackle this, we need an understanding of the psychology of victims, perpetrators and children in what is a hugely complex area of motivations, drivers, preconceptions and circumstances, right across gender and age divides, social and economic environments, matters of nature and nurture, and much else. This suggests to me that the discipline of psychology is a golden thread in terms of identifying traits informing decisions, facilitating early-stage support and intervention, and, as the noble Baronesses have said, breaking this terrible cycle of behaviour that the Bill seeks to address.
I recognise that psychological skills are, in any event, far from plentiful, and involve not only time but expense. But I do not believe that it is an argument to discard the appropriate tool on grounds of timing, complexity or cost; nor should we be deflected because, as has been explained to me by others, dealing with substance abuse in parallel with psychological issues—as is so often a combination—requires considerable skills and powers of leadership.
I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, mentioned cost-benefit. It may sound like monetising private misery, but I am absolutely convinced that she is right about the social cost and why these amendments are necessary.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull.
My Lords, I strongly support these amendments, although, like the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, I lack the knowledge, skills and experience of the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Stroud. I therefore add our support for this suite of amendments, focusing as they do on the prevention of domestic abuse by making it a top priority for the commissioner, the advisory board and the local partnership boards. I also strongly support the emphasis on children and the need for therapy services all over the country, as elaborated on by the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud.
As we know, abuse is a cycle. The abused child all too frequently turns into the abuser, and generation begets generation of misery and pain. Unless there is an intervention to break this cycle, we will still be wrestling with this subject for years and, indeed, generations to come. There are other excellent amendments to come tackling this issue, so I will leave my comments there for now.
My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, I am happy to give my support to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I have great respect for the noble Baroness, but, again, have no expertise in this area. Of course, prevention is absolutely the key, and the point the noble Baroness made about the importance of ensuring that we take effective action to prevent children becoming abusers in the future is very important. You have to break this cycle, and I very much agree with the noble Baroness on that point.
I also think we have to be careful here that we are offering the right interventions at the right time. Professionals who are going to engage with partners and couples also need to be able to spot whether something is an area of conflict, but is not domestic abuse, or, equally, whether a situation is domestic abuse and actually needs a different intervention—they need to have the skills to understand that, and understand the difference. We would never want a situation where somebody remains in a relationship because they have had the wrong intervention. This is a very complicated area. We need professionals to provide the proper advice at the right time to ensure that if you can work to do that, fine, but equally there are times when people need to get out of a dangerous relationship. We need to ensure that professionals are able to spot that, and that you are building that knowledge and expertise into all the interventions that people can engage with.
On that basis, I am happy to support the amendments and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for tabling these amendments. I am pleased to see her looking so very much better. I hope that she is indeed feeling better, although she still has a bit of a cough. Her experience has been praised across the House, and I know how much she contributes to the debates in which she takes part. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned, she brought into focus the real danger of the cycle of abuse and the importance of breaking it. As the noble Lord said, what we need here is the right interventions at the right time. There is strong evidence that conflict between parents, whether together or separated, can have significant impacts on children’s mental health and on long-term life chances. We can all agree on that.
We also highly value marriage, but must acknowledge that, for many reasons, such an arrangement will not suit everyone. Marriages have their difficulties; some couples do experience conflict and may decide that it is best for those involved to end their marriage. I recognise too the particular impact that this has on children and young people. That is not, of course, to negate the importance of couples’ counselling and access to psychological therapy services. They should not be underestimated and, in many cases, they lead to reconciliation of relationships, with steps to rebuild and repair. As the noble Baroness outlined, their value is immeasurable whatever the outcome of the relationship.
On mental health services, we are absolutely committed to our ambitions in the NHS long-term plan to expand and transform mental health services in England and to invest an additional £2.3 billion a year in them by 2023-24. Under the NHS long-term plan there will be a comprehensive expansion of mental health services, ensuring that an additional 380,000 adults can access psychological therapies by 2023-24. It also commits to providing access to such therapies for specific groups, including expanding access to evidence-based psychological therapies within special perinatal mental health services, and parent, infant, couple, co-parenting and family interventions.
I turn to the specifics of the amendments. Amendments 27 and 41 relate to the role of the domestic abuse commissioner. The noble Baroness will know that Nicole Jacobs has undertaken significant action already as designate commissioner, including raising awareness of domestic abuse. She will also be responsible for monitoring and overseeing delivery of services to ensure that they are as effective, evidence-based and safe as they can be, as well as publishing information about the range of provision that currently exists for victims and survivors.
The commissioner’s general functions include the provision of support for people affected by domestic abuse. Within that, Clause 7 already provides that the commissioner may assess, monitor and publish information about the provision of services to people affected by domestic abuse. That might include the provision of relationship counselling and psychological therapy. I assure the noble Baroness that the substance of Amendment 27 is already captured by the remit of the commission as set out in Clause 7.
The Committee has heard a combination of views about ensuring the commissioner’s independence and a number of views on what she should be tasked with. The commissioner has a challenging role and will undoubtedly face many demands on her—many of them from your Lordships’ House. Respecting the independence of her office, we should leave it her to determine her priorities, as set out in her strategic plan, informed by the views of her advisory board. If we start writing into the Bill particular issues that the commissioner should address, we risk creating an unhelpful hierarchy of priorities which will constrain her freedom of action. Specifying in the legislation what should and should not feature in her strategic plan would restrict and hinder the very independence that the role requires.
The commissioner’s strategic plan will be developed in tandem with her advisory board, as well as the Home Secretary and others. I assure the noble Baroness that the plan will be scrutinised and expertise sought on its development. I hope that reassures her that a range of areas will be considered.
In Amendment 41, the noble Baroness seeks to expand the list of specialists who must have a seat on the commissioner’s advisory board so that it includes a person with experience of the provision of psychological therapy services. There is a balance to be struck in Clause 12. We want an advisory board which includes members with a range of experiences, but we also need to ensure that the commissioner has sufficient flexibility to appoint a board which will best assist her in discharging her functions. This is not the only amendment which seeks to add this or that category to the list of advisory board members. I put it to noble Lords that, within the framework provided for in Clause 12, we should otherwise leave it to the commissioner to determine the membership of the board.
Similar considerations apply to Amendment 103 to Clause 56, which provides for the membership of the domestic abuse local partnership boards in Part 4 of the Bill. This amendment would add to the membership of those boards a person representing psychological therapy services for couples experiencing conflict and potential domestic abuse. I do appreciate the intention behind this amendment and similar ones, but again, I have concerns that we risk building too much rigidity into the composition of these boards and unduly constraining the flexibility that local authorities have to appoint a board that meets particular local needs. Local partnership boards will be set up in line with local needs and existing partnership arrangements, where we will see their strength. We have provided for core representation on the boards in Clause 56(2), but beyond that we should leave it to the good judgment of the tier 1 local authorities.
Moving away from the specifics of the amendments, I assure the noble Baroness that work is already taking place across government on bettering relationships. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme is aimed at conflict below the threshold of domestic abuse. It aims to promote improved outcomes for children, with a focus on disadvantaged families. The programme has funded local authorities to undertake strategic leadership support activities and practitioner training, which resulted in the creation of resources. It has aimed to improve understanding that not all conflict is damaging but, where this is frequent, intense and poorly resolved, it can harm children’s outcomes and can be addressed as part of working with families. The next phase of the programme has funding of up to £11 million allocated to it and will run from April this year to March next year.
It is important to highlight the benefits of preserving fundamentally healthy relationships where we can, and the important role that counselling can play in securing this outcome. In the context of domestic abuse, we often talk about relationships breaking, but we also know how they can be repaired through counselling and conflict management. The noble Baroness is right to bring the Committee’s attention to this issue. I hope that, having highlighted it, the noble Baroness will be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken so thoughtfully in this well-informed debate, although several of them denied any knowledge of this area.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for her thoughtful response and general support in terms of the importance of prevention. I want to respond to one point she made: much of couples therapy is about enabling couples who need to part to do so; it is not all aimed at keeping people together, because that can be a thoroughly bad thing. I thank both Ministers for the huge amount of effort and time they are putting into this Bill—we all appreciate it greatly. I mention that because this is the first time I have been involved in Committee.
I am really determined to do something useful in promoting prevention on Report, but I take the points made by the Minister, and on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 27 withdrawn.
Amendments 28 and 29 not moved.
Clause 7 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 30. 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 debate.
Clause 8: Reports
30: Clause 8, page 5, line 16, after “to” insert “Parliament and to”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would mean that the Commissioner would report to both the Secretary of State and Parliament.
My Lords, this suite of amendments tackles the issue of who the commissioner should report to. The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Cormack, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and I all agree that the commissioner should report directly to Parliament. Reports of this kind and their recommendations should be in the public domain and acted on. Reports do no good whatever in the Secretary of State’s in-tray or, sadly, like so many others, gathering dust on a shelf.
The only issue we slightly differ on is how the sensitivity of information published should be dealt with. Clause 8 requires the commissioner to send a draft of any report to the Secretary of State before it is published, and the Secretary of State can direct the commissioner to omit material from the report if he thinks it might jeopardise someone’s safety or the investigation or prosecution of an offence.
The solution proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is to make it the responsibility of the commissioner to ensure that there is nothing of this nature in the report. After all, given the weight of responsibility already invested in the role, it would surely be a rookie error to allow something of this nature to be published, unless there is another reason why the Secretary of State would need to see it first; perhaps the Minister can enlighten us. We have all been assured that this is the only reason and that the Secretary of State does not have the power to omit anything else. But might knowing the contents of the report before publication be helpful in a political sense?
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and I have chosen a different solution to ensure that no prejudicial material is inadvertently included in any report produced by the commissioner. We would still require the commissioner to send a copy of the report to the Secretary of State but would avoid delaying publication of recommendations by requiring a response relating to any proposed changes within 28 days. I am minded to trust the commissioner not to make a mistake of this nature in the first place, but if it gives the Government comfort, this is a compromise I hope they would be more willing to accept.
Finally, Amendment 45, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, requires the commissioner to make an annual report directly to Parliament—a requirement that we of course endorse. I look forward to hearing the thinking behind the amendments in his name.
We have, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, said, four amendments in this group. Amendment 31 provides that the domestic abuse commissioner may report to Parliament on any matter relating to domestic abuse, rather than to the Secretary of State. Amendment 45 provides for the commissioner to make an annual report to Parliament, once again instead of the Secretary of State.
The Bill states that the Secretary of State may direct the commissioner to omit material from a report if they believe that it may jeopardise a person’s safety or prejudice ongoing criminal proceedings. Amendments 32 and 48 would remove that power and instead provide that the commissioner must ensure that a report does not include any details that would jeopardise a person’s safety or prejudice ongoing criminal proceedings—surely something the commissioner should be capable of doing.
These amendments relate to the degree of independence that will be given to the domestic abuse commissioner. The Bill requires reports published by the commissioner to be submitted to the Secretary of State rather than Parliament and, in the case of reports other than the annual report, a draft to be sent to the Secretary of State beforehand. Our amendments seek to change that situation and, in so doing, enhance the independence of the domestic abuse commissioner.
Our amendments would significantly reduce the ability of the Home Office to amend or delay not only the commissioner’s reports, which they will be seeing beforehand in draft, but the commissioner’s work and activities, or otherwise apply undue pressure. Meanwhile, they would ensure the accountability of the commissioner to Parliament.
That independence from the Home Office is needed, and should be seen to be the case. One of the roles of the domestic abuse commissioner—and it is only one—in standing up for victims and survivors and raising public awareness will include considering the Government’s role and effectiveness in tackling domestic abuse. The key department concerned—although not the only one—will be the Home Office, with the policies it pursues relating to domestic abuse issues and their impact in relation to, for example, migrant women. The domestic abuse commissioner will also formulate policies and strategies, and this aspect needs to be seen to be beyond undue influence by government and officials.
The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that the domestic abuse commissioner report directly to Parliament. The Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill did not think the commissioner should be responsible to the Home Office and recommended a clear, direct accountability to Parliament as an assurance of the commissioner’s independence from government. The Joint Committee also proposes that the commissioner should be given power to appoint staff independently, albeit on Civil Service terms and conditions.
Both the Children’s Commissioner and the Victims’ Commissioner have said that greater independence for the domestic abuse commissioner is desirable, based on their experience. Witnesses before the Joint Committee on the draft Bill were unanimous that the commissioner would need to be demonstrably independent of government.
There seems no reason why the specific issues on which the Secretary of State can direct the commissioner to omit material from a report should not be a responsibility that is given to the commissioner, as provided for in these amendments. As it is at the moment, if there is a difference of view between the Secretary of State and the commissioner over whether material in a report jeopardises a person’s safety or prejudices ongoing criminal proceedings, it would appear that the Secretary of State’s view prevails, rather than having any independent reviewer; that clearly could be a source of difficulty and friction.
Incidentally, the former anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, has said that where such reports required prior approval by the Secretary of State, they had to go through a lengthy process of negotiation with, and modification by, officials, with the final report not necessarily fully representing his views. That is quite a sobering thought.
The Bill also provides for the Secretary of State to issue a framework document, which the Secretary of State can then revise. The framework document deals with matters relating to the commissioner, including matters relating to governance, funding and staffing, matters relating to the exercise of functions of the commissioner, and matters relating to scrutiny of the commissioner’s activities by Parliament. The commissioner is required to have regard to this document when exercising any of the commissioner’s functions.
I appreciate that the amendments to which I am speaking do not cover that particular aspect, but it is another issue concerning the independence of the commissioner. Those powers, in relation to the framework document, would seem to give the Secretary of State considerable influence over what the commissioner does and how it is done. While the Secretary of State cannot issue the framework document without the agreement of the commissioner, it is not clear what happens if there is a disagreement over its content—the commissioner and the Secretary of State are hardly equal parties if it does come to a disagreement.
In our view, all these considerations simply make the case for the objectives of the amendments to which I am speaking in relation to the independence of the domestic abuse commissioner. The domestic abuse commissioner not only needs to be independent of government but needs to be seen to be independent of government. That is not what is provided for in this Bill as it stands.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. I agree very much with the line that he took. I anticipated that I would, and that is why I was glad to add my name to a couple of these amendments.
It is essential—and indeed it was really the underlying substance of my noble friend the Minister’s response to the last debate—that the commissioner is independent. To give the Home Secretary the power to censor a report is, certainly from my point of view, a step too far. Parliament should have a role here, and a central role.
Although there are slight divergences between the amendment to which I am giving my support and the amendment admirably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, they are very similar, and she indicated that. Effectively, they are probing amendments. I have always believed that, for the most part, it is best if we do not have Divisions in Committee, so that we can hear what noble Lords have to say, the Minister can hear the points that are made and we can achieve, I hope, a degree of consensus by the time we come to Report.
I certainly could not support the supremacy, in the way that it stands at the moment, of the Home Secretary, and the ability, effectively, to call in—and, as I said at the beginning, to censor—a report. The commissioner must be someone in whom we repose a very high degree of trust, and who can report without fear or favour. I believe that the commissioner should report to Parliament, where we can guarantee that there will be proper scrutiny. Although I accept the important role of the Home Affairs Committee in the other place—as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said, that committee has itself recommended a report to Parliament—I have always been a great believer in Joint Committees of both Houses, especially when there is such a degree of expertise, to which I do not claim any, in your Lordships’ House. We have heard during the course of the debates today—I have listened to all of them—and the debates on Monday, that there really is a degree of expertise, and a depth of expertise, that the other Chamber can complement but not really surpass. So a Joint Committee might be a very good idea. Whatever final decision is made by your Lordships’ House and the other place on that, the centrality of Parliament’s role should be emphasised by underlining the autonomy and independence of the commissioner. She must not be seen to be a creature of government; her independence is vital.
I very much hope that, when my noble friend comes to reply to this debate, he will recognise the importance of Parliament’s role, and how crucial it is that the commissioner is someone in whom we can repose trust and someone who feels she can speak without fear or favour. I hope that, as a result of our discussions this afternoon, when we do come to Report, it will be possible for us to take a consensual and collective view that reinforces the importance, independence and integrity of the commissioner and, at the same time, the important role that Parliament should play.
My Lords, I suspect that the Minister may tell us that Parliament will be quite adequately and properly involved, because the Secretary of State who sponsors—I think that is the term—the commissioner is accountable to Parliament.
Noble Lords who have spoken have all made the point about independence being absolutely crucial. We have already debated that in the context of the budget, particularly the other day, and the provision of staff, and of course it was central to the proposal that the commissioner’s title include the word “independent”. The Government have recognised that—not so far as to accept any amendments but they have recognised the point—and, I hope, the point about the commissioner being seen to be independent, which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has made today and I think I made on Monday, as I certainly intended to.
Our amendments propose reports going to both the Secretary of State and Parliament because, by nature and inclination, my noble friend and I want to find a way through this that might satisfy everybody. As my noble friend said, it is not unknown for Ministers not to respond promptly to draft reports and other material. In fact, I had Kevin Hyland’s experience in mind when we prepared these amendments. I am personally not wedded to 28 days. What is important is that there is a fairly tight maximum time limit.
On Amendment 35, I have thought about the situation a little more since we tabled the amendments. The commissioner is not actually required to give advice or assistance: “may” is the term in both Clause 9(1) and Clause 9(2), although there is a “must” about publishing advice to any person other than the Secretary of State—that is in Clause 9(4). I am a little worried about whether the prospect of advice being required to be published might constrain people other than the Secretary of State from seeking advice. So, as well as wondering why non-Secretaries of State are not on the same footing as the Secretary of State for this purpose, I am actually a bit concerned about the provision.
Is Clause 9(2) itself actually necessary—that is, the subsection which says that the commissioner may advise or assist someone else—especially as we are told that the list of powers at Clause 7(2) is not an exhaustive list? Can someone seek advice or assistance without it being published? There must be many situations in which that would be appropriate. Also, can the commissioner omit matters listed in Clause 9(6) of his or her own volition? Surely, they can. We have all been talking on the basis that the commissioner can and would do so, but it is a matter of the Secretary of State’s direction, which I find a little curious, in addition to the points made by other noble Lords. I hope the Minister can answer these questions, which, perhaps, go behind some of the words in the Bill, as well as the overarching issues raised by these amendments.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I support a number of the comments she made and I look forward to the answers. I particularly support the amendments in the group in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, signed by my noble friend Lord Cormack and others. At another time and in another place, I chaired a Select Committee—on a completely different subject from that before us today—and the annual reports from organisations such as, in this case, the domestic abuse commissioner, are extremely important to Back-Bench Members of Parliament, giving them the opportunity to debate and scrutinise the work undertaken by these bodies.
I believe that these amendments are extremely important. To be honest, I do not know what the situation is if a report is simply made to the Secretary of State, rather than being made more freely available. If a report is made to Parliament, then Parliament and Select Committees have the right to debate it, either in Select Committee or on the Floor of the House, depending on the importance of the contents and of that particular body. I also underline that in other Bills that have come before the House in recent times—looking forward to Committee on the Environment Bill, I am sure this will be commented on again in respect of the Office for Environmental Protection—it is essential that a body such as the domestic abuse commissioner should operate independently of the Secretary of State and the department.
That became extremely clear in our discussions on the trade and agriculture commission, and I am delighted to say that the Government listened, and we now have a new trade and agriculture commission coming in that will be, in my view, more independent. I add that it is not just independence for the domestic abuse commissioner; she should also have proper resources and staff to ensure that she is able to fulfil her functions without having to go back regularly to request more authorisation from the Secretary of State.
I would be interested to know whether there is any reason why the Bill, as currently drafted, limits the submission of the report to the Secretary of State or whether there was a position of principle taken as to why it would not be made to Parliament alone. However, I am sure that if this debate were to be held, as it will be if an amendment is carried on Report, I am very confident that Back-Bench Members of the other place will be just as keen as we are in your Lordships’ House to ensure that the report is provided to Parliament as the basis for debate and to ensure the commissioner’s independence from the department and operational independence from the Secretary of State. I look forward to hearing my noble friend’s summing up on this small group.
My Lords, I will not be as brief on this group as I was in the previous group. I very much support Amendments 31, 32 and 48 in the name of my noble friend and I simply do not see why the Secretary of State wants such a controlling role over the commissioner. The first commissioner is clearly a person of substance, and we would expect the successors to be persons of substance. I want to explore a bit of the detail. If we do not have openness and transparency, frankly, we will not engender confidence from the media, opinion formers, legislators or potential victims of domestic abuse. It is pretty crucial. Without openness and transparency, confidence is at risk. Let us think about this because, on Monday evening, the Minister admitted, after one of my questions, that the accounting officer function rests with the Home Secretary, not the commissioner.
In addition to my time at the Food Standards Agency, I worked in six government departments over 12 years, and I can assure noble Lords that, on more than one occasion sitting in on meetings, I heard the words uttered by a person in the room, where there was a dispute going on, “This is an accounting officer function, and this is what I have decided.” In the main, I tended to go along with that: obviously, it was usually the perm sec. It is a killer point to make in any dispute that a department might have with one of its other bodies, and it is not about money. The title is actually not quite right here, because it is the accounting officer who ends up before the Public Accounts Committee—again, accounts—but it looks at the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the function and the role; it does not look just at the pounds, shillings and pence, if I can put it that way.
Then you have to look at the staff. It was agreed by Ministers on Monday that the commissioner’s staff would be Home Office civil servants. It is clear that they will be civil servants, but I have not worked out why they have to be from the Home Office. It ought to be possible for civil servants from across Whitehall to apply to be on the staff of the domestic abuse commissioner. They will be a small group, so will one of them be the legal adviser to the domestic abuse commissioner? Will she have a legal team of her own, made up of Home Office civil servants giving her advice—from the lawyer to the client—about the functions set out in subsection (4)(a) and (b)? Of course, it might be that the budget put together by the Home Secretary does not allow for a legal team for the commissioner, who will then have to make use of the Home Office legal team, which I should imagine is pretty extensive. Where is the client-lawyer relationship when the commissioner might be in dispute with the Home Secretary about what is to be admitted, or not admitted as the case may be?
I freely admit that some of these questions go beyond the clause, but I want to be practical about the situation that will arise if there is a problem. I know nothing about the problems of other commissioners as regards legal disputes. I assume that in most cases the Permanent Secretary of the department will be the accounting officer, so they will have the final word. I can assure noble Lords that it is pretty powerful in Whitehall when other civil servants hear the accounting officer assert their role. I am therefore not sure, if the position is as I have painted it, whether one could use the word “independence” in terms of the domestic abuse commissioner in any way, shape or form, unless some of these amendments are carried forward into the Bill. I will leave it there.
My Lords, it is always good to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Even when he speaks for a bit longer than previously, his words are full of expertise and to the point.
When I looked through these amendments, I was particularly attracted to Amendment 31 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and my noble friend Lord Cormack. I agree that Parliament should be much involved in these reports, so I looked a bit further and noted that Clause (8)(6) states
“The Commissioner must arrange for a copy of any report published under this section to be laid before Parliament.”
I have been listening intently to the debate and trying to find out why, if it is to go before Parliament in any case, according to the Bill, there is a need for the amendment.
I agree that it is down to Parliament to decide whether it is debated, perhaps in a Select Committee, and echo the points made by my noble friend Lord Cormack. On this issue and indeed on so much else, there is so much expertise in your Lordships’ House that it would be meritorious to do that—or indeed on the Floor of either or both Houses. Presumably in previous times it would have been very much for the Government and the business managers to arrange that, but these days in the other place there are various avenues for Select Committee and other reports to be debated. I am not entirely sure whether there is a need for these amendments as such. One thing that comes into all this, I suggest, is that there is always mistrust about why things are being put in. Perhaps subsection (6) could be looked at so that it says something like, “the commissioner must arrange for a copy of any report published under this section to be laid before Parliament at the same time as it is reported to the Secretary of State.” There would be no question of the report being held back from Parliament.
My other point relates to the phrase
“The Secretary of State may direct the Commissioner to omit material”.
My noble friend Lord Cormack was technically correct when he said “censor”, but we might call it redaction because in some cases it would be wise to do that. I cannot imagine that someone with the expertise of the commissioner would do that, but it is there. However, I also note that before the Secretary of State does so, the commissioner has to be consulted. The real point of what we are discussing is independence, as other speakers have said. I echo the concerns I had when we considered the Modern Slavery Act. If I remember correctly, we had to insert the term “independent anti-slavery commissioner” to try to convince people that it was in fact an independent position. However, as we know, the commission relies on the Home Office for its financing, staffing and so on. As my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering said, we will certainly have similar discussions when we come to consider the Environment Bill and the chair of the office for environmental protection.
The calibre of the candidates who will fulfil these roles should mean that they will feel independent. However, if I had a cynical streak—I am afraid to say that it does occur from time to time—I might say that it would probably be better if the commissioner served their term and was not up for reappointment. I cannot help feeling that if someone thinks, “Am I going to be reappointed or not?”, it might just curb some of their exuberance for making comments or giving directions that they feel the Home Office, in this case, would not like.
I remain slightly sceptical about whether these amendments are required and look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister says. I have not yet made up my mind about whether, when the Bill comes to Report, I would support some of these amendments if no changes have been made. However, I feel that noble Lords are perhaps being a little too cynical about the intentions in these provisions.
My Lords, the contribution just made by the noble Lord, Lord Randall, was very interesting. He stressed the importance of independence but then implied, or said directly, that noble Lords may be being overly cynical about the Government’s intentions with regard to the independence of the commissioner. I say to him that there is good evidence for being cautious about any changes to what the Bill contains which might inhibit the commissioner’s independence.
My noble friend Lord Rooker spoke with great authority, both as a distinguished leader of the Food Standards Agency and, as he said, having served in six departments over 12 years. I too served in six departments, in a slightly shorter time. What I would echo is the important role of the accounting officer. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and to my noble friend makes me think that the whole structure of governance and arrangements for the commissioner perhaps need to be revisited on Report. At the moment, we are debating a series of amendments in different groups when I think we need a more concerted debate to look at the whole architecture of the commissioner, their independence, their relationship with the Home Office and issues to do with funding and staffing. At the moment, I feel that we do not quite have a grip on that.
On the specific amendments, I want to comment on the commissioner reporting to the Secretary of State and their relationship to Parliament. I have no doubt that the Minister will say—and the noble Lord, Lord Randall, referred to this point in the Bill—that the commissioner, having reported to the Secretary of State, must arrange for a copy of any report published under the section we are debating to be laid before Parliament. That is well and good, but my concern is that many reports are laid before Parliament every day. The minutes of our proceedings often contain long lists of papers laid before the House that are not subject to parliamentary proceedings—which is how a report from the commissioner would be treated.
Look at the minutes of proceedings of the House last Thursday. Nine papers are listed nine papers: the accounts of the Great Britain National Insurance Fund; the accounts of the Northern Ireland National Insurance Fund; the accounts of the Dartford-Thurrock river crossing charging scheme; Dame Shirley Pearce’s Independent Review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, volumes 1 and 2; the report and accounts of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority; the report and accounts of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority; the report and accounts of the Money and Pensions Service; the report and accounts of the Valuation Tribunal Service; and the report and financial statements of the Money Advice Service.
Now, these are worthy reports that I am sure are of great interest to the organisations concerned. But how many of us ever get to see them and—to take up the point of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh—how many are debated? Very few indeed. If a report is laid before your Lordships’ House in this way by the commissioner, there is no guarantee—in fact it is very unlikely—that there will be any mechanism for debating it. It just does not happen that way. This is not just about what is in the Bill; there are some general principles here. Where people hold important posts, such as the domestic abuse commissioner, there needs to be a better way to engage them in Parliament alongside the Select Committees. This is partly to do with the Bill, but also the way that Parliament deals with this itself.
This has been a short but important debate about the architecture underpinning the domestic abuse commissioner. I think noble Lords need to come together to reflect on whether the Bill is right and whether, on Report, we need to look again at ensuring the robust independence of this postholder.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt of Solihull and Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for setting out these amendments so clearly.
Clauses 8 and 14 of the Bill provide for the domestic abuse commissioner to report to the Home Secretary on any matters relating to domestic abuse and for the preparation and publication of an annual report. These reports could cover a range of different issues about domestic abuse. While it will be for the commissioner to determine what aspects of domestic abuse to examine and report on, it is likely that reports published under Clauses 8 and 14 will emerge from the commissioner’s strategic plan, which we will be debating later in Committee.
We think it is entirely proper for the domestic abuse commissioner to report to the Home Secretary. That is the case with other public bodies and officeholders who report to Ministers rather than Parliament. The domestic abuse commissioner will have day-to-day operational independence from Ministers, with responsibility for setting her own work plans and reaching her own conclusions. A number of noble Lords, understandably, wanted to probe this point and talk about the role of Parliament.
Although the commissioner will not be directly accountable to Parliament under the Bill, she will need to develop an effective relationship with Members in another place and your Lordships’ House. As my noble friend Lord Cormack said, she is therefore very likely to be asked to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place and to other committees of both Houses. To reinforce the commissioner’s direct link to Parliament, the commissioner must arrange to lay her reports and strategic plans before Parliament—as my noble friends Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lord Randall of Uxbridge both noted—rather for this to be done via the Home Secretary. It is therefore open to Parliament to debate those reports, if it so wishes. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, rather proved the point about the vigilance of your Lordships’ House by noting and listing the large number of reports which it is open to Parliament to examine and debate, if it so wishes.
The fact that the commissioner is accountable to the Home Secretary in no way compromises her independence. The independence of a statutory officeholder is assured by both the terms of the legislative framework under which they operate and the way that they conduct themselves in office. I am sure noble Lords would agree that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, was no less independent when he was the reviewer of terrorism legislation by virtue of his being accountable to the Home Office; nor was the independence of my noble friend Lady Newlove compromised by being accountable to the Secretary of State for Justice when she held the office of Victims’ Commissioner; and nor was that of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, when he was chairman of the Youth Justice Board. Happily, there are many such examples in your Lordships’ House that one could cite.
More pertinently, I refer noble Lords to the comments made by Nicole Jacobs when she gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee in another place. She was asked about this issue by the honourable friend of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, the Member for Kingston upon Hull North. Nicole Jacobs said:
“I feel confident about the hosting at the Home Office … I fully intend to be independent … I do not feel hindered in any way in the process to date, in terms of my independence.”––[Official Report, Commons, Domestic Abuse Bill Committee, 29/10/19; col. 9.]
Given that commitment from the commissioner herself, we expect the thematic reports produced by her to provide robust, challenging advice and recommendations. These reports will form a fundamental part of her work and play a central role in discharging her functions under Clause 7. These include encouraging good practice in the prevention of domestic abuse, and protecting and supporting victims and their children. As well as identifying and publicising good practice, the reports will, importantly, be a means for her to highlight areas where improvement is needed.
Clause 8 requires that the commissioner’s reports made under this section must be published and that, before publication, the commissioner, under subsection (3), must send a draft to the Home Secretary. To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, the reason for sending these drafts is so that the Home Secretary can consider whether she needs to exercise her very limited power to direct the removal of material that could risk someone’s safety or which might prejudice any investigation or prosecution of an offence.
Clauses 9 and 14 contain similar provisions about redacting sensitive material from any advice published under that clause. There are only very restricted circumstances under which the Home Secretary can direct that material be omitted from a report. The power is both limited and very narrowly focused. It is not right to say, as my noble friend Lord Cormack characterised it, that the Home Secretary would have the power to censor reports. The Home Secretary can require information to be omitted only where its publication could jeopardise the safety of any person or where the information might prejudice an ongoing criminal or civil investigation or prosecution.
We have also included further safeguards in the draft framework document, which we have agreed with the commissioner and published alongside the Bill. This sets out, at paragraphs 4.8 to 4.11, a clear process and timelines for resolving any disputes about the need to redact material from a report. To answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, about legal advice, Home Office legal advisers could not provide advice to the commissioner, because that would be a conflict of interest as they also advise the Home Office. So, yes, it would be for the commissioner to use her budget to pay for her legal advice.
In addition, following recommendations by the Joint Committee to protect the commissioner’s independence —and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that that area has rightly been given a lot of attention in Committee so far—we have also placed a duty on the Home Secretary to consult the commissioner before directing her to remove any information from a report. I hope that answers the question from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, about what would happen if there was a difference of views. Certainly in my experience as an adviser in Government, if independent commissioners disagree with the Government, they find a way to make sure that that is publicly known. As my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge says, the calibre of candidates whom we attract assures this. But we would be happy to take a fresh look at the relevant provisions of the framework document to see if they could be further tightened. I hope noble Lords will welcome that commitment.
I should stress that, apart from this narrow provision, the content of any report, including the judgments contained therein, is entirely a matter for the commissioner, however challenging her findings and recommendations may be for the Government. We want these reports to be hard-hitting where they need to be, as well as celebrating and sharing good practice wherever that is to be found. In short, these narrow provisions do not in any sense compromise the independence of the commissioner.
Amendment 35, in the name of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Burt of Solihull, would require that any advice given by the commissioner to the Secretary of State be published, in the same way that the commissioner is required to publish advice given to any other person following a request made under Clause 9(2).
To answer the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, Clause 9(4) is drafted as it is for a reason. In the interests of transparency and spreading good practice, we think it is right that any advice from the commissioner to a person other than the Secretary of State should be published. The commissioner would, of course, have to frame that advice accordingly, knowing that it was to be published.
However, the relationship between the commissioner and the Secretary of State is of a different kind. The Home Office, as the sponsoring department, will be in regular contact with the commissioner and her office, and there is likely to be a steady and regular flow of what could be taken as requests for advice; for instance, in relation to things such as staffing and budgetary matters, as well as policy questions. We do not believe that it is necessary or appropriate for all the responses to requests such as those to be published.
For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, has amendments on the Order Paper which relate to the duty to co-operate with the commissioner. I understand that those have been proposed by the commissioner. To help us understand the case for these amendments, officials have asked for further information about them. I hope the noble Baroness will agree that that is a sensible exchange for the Government to have, but regular exchanges of advice such as this, between the Home Office and the commissioner’s office, are of a different kind from the advice that might be requested by a third party under Clause 9(2).
There will, of course, be occasions where the commissioner is providing set-piece advice—if I might call it that—to the Secretary of State. In such cases, she can set that out in a Clause 8 report, which must be published, so that discretion lies with the commissioner if she judges it important.
We believe that the Bill strikes the right balance between transparency and the efficient conduct of business between the commissioner’s office and the government departments that she needs to interact with. I hope that, in the light of that explanation and the commitment to look again at the terms of the framework document, the noble Baroness will be content to withdraw her amendment.
I have received a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
My Lords, I thought the noble Lord would not be able to respond to my question about whether advice to someone other than the Secretary of State has to be published. Just after I pressed send, he came to that point, but may I pursue it a little?
From what he said, I think that it would be open to the commissioner to redact part of the advice that is published—it certainly should be. However, there is a power of direction for the Secretary of State. As other noble Lords have alluded to, there are bits of the relationship which we are seeking to fill in, if you like, through these debates. Do the Government not take the point that there may be occasions when it would not be appropriate to publish advice at all—not just about an individual but perhaps a piece of work which it would not be appropriate to publish at that moment? We may need to look at what is meant by “advice” and “assistance”—I do not know where the demarcation line is between the two. I do not expect the Minister to get into the semantics now, but I may look at the semantics after today.
I am glad to have answered the initial question from the noble Baroness. On her second, I think the semantics are probably best considered between now and Report. It is a role of the commissioner to publicise and share best practice, which is why the advice that she gives under these clauses should rightly be made public, and why her criticisms should also be aired publicly. I am sure it will be at her discretion not to include any information which could be harmful, and not to publish a report if she thought that that was the case. As the noble Baroness said, the semantic difference between “advice” and “assistance” can be pondered between now and Report.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It never ceases to amaze me, when I read an amendment which sounds like a simple matter, that other noble Lords come at it from different angles, with different issues and perspectives. All of a sudden, we are in a whole different ball game, so I am grateful to everyone who has managed to confuse me this evening.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, who emphasised the independence of the commissioner from the Home Office. On the whole issue of reports to the Secretary of State and reports and advice to other individuals, I agree with my noble friend Lady Hamwee that we should take that away and, in conjunction with the Minister, think about exactly how that should be written into the Bill to the best effect for everyone.
Other noble Lords have raised too many issues to go into this evening, so I will finish with the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack: we should listen to what the Minister has said, digest it and take it away, because at Report, we will be in a better position and will have rehearsed and discussed the arguments. We may well reserve the right to come forward with an amendment at that stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 30 withdrawn.
Amendments 31 to 33 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 34. 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 the group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
34: Clause 8, page 5, line 29, at end insert—
“(7) Within one year of the passing of this Act, the Commissioner must publish a report under this section, which—(a) investigates the impact of Universal Credit single household payments on victims of domestic abuse; and (b) investigates and presents alternative options for the payment of Universal Credit (single household payments) that protect victims of domestic abuse.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would place a legal duty on the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to investigate the payment of Universal Credit separately to members of a couple and to lay a report to Parliament.
My Lords, Amendment 34 would require the domestic abuse commissioner to investigate the payment of universal credit separately for members of a couple and to lay a report before Parliament. I will first speak to Amendment 153, which would require an impact assessment of any future social security reforms on domestic abuse victims, because this frames the other amendments in the group.
I am grateful to Women’s Aid, Refuge and the Chartered Institute of Housing for their help with the various amendments, which address issues they see as crucial. I am also grateful to noble Lords who have put their name to them, as well as to DWP Ministers for a helpful meeting this week.
At Second Reading, the Minister explained that one of the Bill’s objectives is
“to improve performance across local and national agencies.”—[Official Report, 5/1/21; col. 21.]
This reflects the Istanbul convention’s stipulation that measures to prevent and combat all forms of violence against women and girls should involve
“all relevant actors, such as government agencies”.
Pursuing a similar theme, the Work and Pensions Committee argued:
“Getting the right support and systems in place for Universal Credit claimants … could play a small, vital role in minimising harm”,
and that the DWP
“has a moral duty to ensure the benefit system does not in any way facilitate abuse.”
Yet the Bill does not mention social security, even though the draft guidance notes:
“DWP employees are highly likely to come into contact with victims of domestic abuse”,
and the response to the Joint Committee report acknowledged that
“access to money is one of the main barriers to ending an abusive relationship”.
Indeed, over 50% of survivors surveyed by Women’s Aid and the TUC said that they could not afford to leave their abuser as they faced a stark choice between safety and poverty, heightened during the pandemic. Research by Women’s Aid and others shows how while the social security system, as a vital safety net, can “keep some survivors going”, it can also create barriers and an additional source of stress in the aftermath of abuse.
The DWP is to be commended for certain easements and exemptions for domestic abuse victims and survivors, and for domestic abuse training of one point of contact in each office. But I understand that there are difficulties in retaining this knowledge and expertise in jobcentres because of staff turnover. Can the Minister follow up in writing with information about how widespread a problem this is and what provision exists to refresh training, and respond to Women’s Aid’s request for the future full training of all work coaches.
More fundamentally, the very welcome inclusion of economic abuse in the Bill’s definition of domestic abuse will be undermined by the cumulative impact of some of the Government’s own social security reforms, including the two-child limit and bedroom tax, as well as those that are covered by other amendments in this group. It is worth noting here that the European Court on Human Rights ruled last year that the bedroom tax unlawfully discriminates against victims of domestic abuse who have a panic room as part of a sanctuary scheme. Women’s Aid has discovered from FoI responses from 79 local authorities that almost one in 20 households using the sanctuary scheme has been affected by the bedroom tax. Yet nothing has been done to rectify this. Can the Minister explain why, if necessary in writing?
When a similar amendment was tabled in the Commons, the Minister responded that the Government were already obliged to consider the impacts of their policies through existing equality assessments, in line with the public sector equality duty. But as a Women’s Budget Group report noted, DWP equality impact assessments are very limited from a gender perspective and do nothing to assess, for instance, the impact on who in a couple controls resources, on the financial security and autonomy each enjoys, or on the ability to escape an abusive relationship. Surely it makes sense to consider such key implications for the Government’s domestic abuse strategy at the design stage of social security policy.
The case is exemplified in particular by the subject of the lead amendment. The payment of UC into a single account, even if a joint account, has been described by one commentator as “a weapon for abusers”. It can encourage and exacerbate economic abuse, potentially with long-term consequences. No one is arguing that separate payments are a solution to economic abuse, as Ministers often suggest we are, in response to criticism of this policy. But, as the Economic Affairs Committee pointed out in its recent report on UC,
“the design of the single household payment can, in certain circumstances, exacerbate the risk that financial coercion may take place and make it more difficult for people who have suffered from any form of abuse to escape.”
The committee also points out that payment into a single account
“does not reflect reality for many families today, who are used to both partners having their own income … This is important both for reducing the risks of financial coercion and domestic abuse more widely and for encouraging more balanced and equal relationships.”
This last point addresses the Government’s argument that separate payments would be out of line with how most couples manage their finances. I point out that according to a Refuge and Co-op survey, as many as 16% self-reported experiencing economic abuse; this is equivalent to 9 million people.
The chief executive of SafeLives told the Commons committee that
“split payments are something that everyone across the whole sector is crying out for.”
That organisation knows from experience that the current policy of allowing domestic abuse victims to request a split payment simply does not work, not least because it puts victims at risk, because the abusing partner would immediately guess why they are not getting the full payment for the family, or could easily discover the reason. Indeed, the operational guidance acknowledges the risk.
From the Minister’s responses in Committee in the Commons, she did not seem to understand this. When asked:
“Can the Minister not see the problem with a woman going in and asking for a split payment, and then returning home that evening?”,
“That is why we do not have it as a default.”—[Official Report, Commons, Domestic Abuse Bill Committee, 16/6/20; col. 376.]
But if a separate payment were the default, the abuser could not blame the abused because the couple would be treated like everyone else. The Joint Committee recommended nearly two years ago that the DWP,
“should examine how different approaches to splitting the Universal Credit single household payment might mitigate against the effects of domestic abuse.”
The most recent of a series of such recommendations from parliamentary committees and others comes from the Economic Affairs Committee, which, like others, suggests that any review could draw on work being undertaken in Scotland.
Welcome as the decision to encourage joint payment into the bank account of the main carer is, it is not seen as the answer by those on the ground and does not help those without children. The consensus is that a review is still needed—hence, this amendment, which would allow for an independent, focused review that could take a detailed look at the evidence on how joint payments are working and consider the options for separate payments, which I know raise complex issues.
I turn to the other amendments, which are examples of how policies that have had a wider damaging impact could be mitigated for domestic abuse survivors. This is not the place to make the wider case against these policies, much as I should like to, but a precedent for exempting this group from them already exists in the job search easement. I trust that that will not be used as an argument against these amendments.
Amendment 150 would exempt domestic abuse survivors from having to repay any benefit advance made to protect them from the effects of having to wait at least five weeks for a first UC payment. The Economic Affairs Committee observed that this wait
“is the primary cause of insecurity in universal credit. It entrenches debt, increases poverty and harms vulnerable groups disproportionately.”
While, as I said, the Bill cannot be a vehicle for introducing the general non-repayable grant recommended by the committee and others, including the Joint Committee, the particular vulnerability that domestic abuse survivors face at the point of claiming justifies their exemption from repaying the advance. Think about it. If I had just fled an abusive situation, I could well be traumatised and have minimal possessions with me, and may need to replace essential items. I could be one of the nearly three out of five survivors of economic abuse identified in Refuge research as already in debt because of the abuse—an average debt of over £3,000, and over a quarter with debts of over £5,000. I could be one of the three out of five survivors that Surviving Economic Abuse found had been subject to at least one coerced debt. The last thing I would want would be to add to that debt through a repayable grant, even though it is interest-free and despite the welcome improvements made to the repayment terms, which, I am afraid, do not solve the problem.
One counter argument put by the Government is that waiving repayment could lead to fraud. While there is no evidence that women would falsely claim to have been abused, Refuge suggests that legal aid evidence requirements could be applied. There are also the existing evidence requirements for the job-search easement. One survivor told Refuge:
“I don't know if they understand the impact that it has when you have to wait so long ... if they realised the additional pressure that it puts on women who are fleeing, I think maybe they would try and do something”.
This amendment is an attempt to do something.
Similarly, Amendment 152, combined with Amendment 190, is an attempt to mitigate the impact on abuse survivors of the benefit cap, which limits the amount of benefit payable by introducing a time-limited exemption of 12 months for this group. I know the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and the noble Lord, Lord Best, will bring their considerable experience to bear on this, so I will be brief.
The cap erects yet another barrier to escaping an abusive relationship. Again, the Economic Affairs Committee cites evidence of its disproportionate impact on domestic abuse survivors and how it can create a situation in which they feel forced to return to the abuser in order to survive financially. CPAG reports how the cap has been hurting domestic abuse survivors during the pandemic, including one mother who is in severe financial distress because she has been subjected to the cap, having been furloughed.
The fact that the cap is not applied when a survivor is in temporary or supported accommodation such as a refuge shows that the principle of exempting domestic abuse survivors has been accepted. The problem is that application of the cap as soon as they try to enter the wider housing market, in urgent search of an affordable home, places survivors in an impossible situation and can trap them in a refuge or other such accommodation. Moreover, the Chartered Institute of Housing warns that landlords are often reluctant to rent to anyone who is capped.
Discretionary housing payments are not the answer, not least as they cannot be relied on, and, given that the Government do not monitor their use, they do not actually know whether they are an effective mechanism. In view of the trauma many survivors will still be experiencing, there is a strong argument for exempting them from the cap for a grace period, while they get settled in new accommodation.
In conclusion, I did not get a reply to my question at Second Reading about what discussions have taken place at DWP to ensure social security policy supports domestic abuse policy. I hope these amendments will convince the Minister of the need for such a discussion. As the Women’s Budget Group and domestic abuse organisations have documented, social security is letting down women living with an abusive partner when they try to leave and to build a new life. These amendments would go some way towards ensuring that the social security system supports the Government’s laudable aims on domestic abuse, particularly economic abuse, rather than undermining them, as it does now.
My Lords I rise to support Amendments 34, 150 and 153, to which I have added my name, and the other amendments in this group—although, of course, they will ultimately have to be dealt with by the DWP. I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for tabling these important measures to raise the issues in question, and for her incredibly thorough presentation of the arguments, which enables me to be brief, people will be glad to know.
In particular, I hope the relevant Ministers will be sympathetic to Amendment 150, which would exempt domestic abuse survivors from having to repay benefit advances that had been made to mitigate the effects of waiting at least five weeks for the claimants’ first payments. We know that, for very many claimants, the repayment of advances through deductions from benefits renders them unable to cover their most basic costs, driving them into debt and dependency on food banks just to put some food on the table for their children.
It is appalling to imagine the implications of this extra financial squeeze for a parent with young children who is trying to create an independent life following domestic abuse. Of course, we can only focus on domestic abuse victims, but the profound problem for them arises because of a fundamental injustice in the universal credit system: the requirement for new claimants to wait for five weeks before they receive their first payment. We know that this period often extends to two months or even longer, for a variety of reasons; this is completely inhuman, in my view. This injustice leads to the essential advances, and to the need for this amendment—or, certainly, changes to the system and exemptions for people suffering domestic abuse.
I agree with Amendment 34 from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I do not think the designers of universal credit thought of the victims of domestic abuse when they decided that benefits should be paid in a single household payment. What an opportunity for a controlling perpetrator to use their control over the household’s money to bully their partner to do just about anything they bid them to do. Surely it is right that the consequences of these payments for domestic abuse victims must be reviewed within one year of the passing of the Act. My only regret is that people are going to have to wait for a whole year before the Government even consider what, how and when they should do something about it.
Amendment 153 makes a lot of sense. The Department for Work and Pensions or its successor should, of course, consider the implications for domestic abuse victims of any social security reforms. Finally, Amendment 152 requires the benefit cap to be disapplied for 12 months for a person making a new universal credit claim in their own name when they have separated from a partner due to domestic abuse. Again, the main problem is the crudeness of the benefit cap. It takes no account of people’s circumstances. To top-slice a family’s benefits above an arbitrary level causes incredible hardship in all sorts of cases. However, when a parent with young children is trying to establish a new home, the one-off or short-term costs can be considerable, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, made very clear. I hope the Secretary of State for the DWP and our own Minister will take these amendments and the issues behind them seriously.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for proposing Amendment 152, which it is my privilege to co-sponsor, and, indeed, for her excellent speech in opening the debate on this group of amendments. I also look forward to the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Best, who knows more about housing matters than anyone it has ever been my pleasure to work with.
This amendment concerns the application of universal credit, so perhaps I need to say at the outset that the notion of a unified benefits system is one that I and, I suspect, my right reverend and most reverend friends on these Benches will heartily endorse. The mix and mess of the separate systems that it replaced was well overdue for retirement. There are, of course, proper questions about the level of such benefits and what caps, if any, should generally apply if we are to maintain a proper incentive to find work. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, indicated, those are for another day.
The amendment is simply about how far rules designed for the general context can safely be applied to the very specific circumstances of victims of domestic abuse and their dependants without those rules themselves becoming abusive. As a priest and, for two decades, a bishop in the established Church and as chair of numerous housing associations and housing charities over many years, I have seen all too often the enormous obstacles that lie ahead for anyone, especially a woman with children, fleeing domestic abuse. Too many too often give up and return to a place of damage and danger. Too many who escape face long periods in temporary and unsuitable accommodation, often beyond the point when they need the particular support services offered there. Sadly, too many die at the hands of their abuser.
The overriding purpose of the benefits system and of universal credit as its linchpin must be to help victims to make the transition for themselves and their children from the place of abuse via such short-term specialist accommodation as they require and into a settled home where they can begin to regain some normality in their lives. Only then can children be settled into schools with some hope of permanence, and a mother know what pattern of work will be practicable alongside her parenting responsibilities.
Capping as a feature of the benefits system was introduced primarily to encourage the take-up of employment. While some abuse victims have somehow managed to continue a successful work career—admirably so, even while being grossly mistreated at home—as we have heard in numerous speeches in this debate, it is all too common for a controlling partner to restrict or prevent their victim from accessing finance and the job market.
UK benefit rules already recognise that a woman fleeing abuse may not be in a position to seek work immediately. We cannot logically combine that proper yet modest degree of latitude with the blunt imposition of a benefit cap. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, the principle that different levels of benefit should apply is already accepted when it comes to specialist accommodation.
What this amendment seeks to do is extremely modest. It would allow a breathing period, while a new household was being formed, during which more lenient rules would be applied. I know that the plight of women fleeing abuse is dear to the heart of the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and I am grateful to her for steering this Bill through your Lordships’ House. I would be even more grateful were she able to offer some assurances that Her Majesty’s Government will look again at how the benefits system interfaces with our efforts to prevent domestic abuse and then propose specific amendments to that end.
My Lords, I must begin, as others have, by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, both for tabling these amendments and for her excellent and comprehensive introduction to them. I shall speak to Amendment 34, in her name and signed also by the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Sherlock. I also offer the Green Party’s strong support for Amendments 150, 152, 153 and 190. It is a pity that the systems of your Lordships’ House do not allow more than four signatures and so a chance to show the full breadth of political support for all amendments, particularly these very important ones.
I shall treat the amendments as a group because they very much fit together. I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for her reference, in relation to Amendment 153, to the bedroom tax. It is worth highlighting again, in the age of Covid-19, the pernicious effects of forcing siblings into sharing rooms, with the impossibility of self-isolating should that be needed. Where households are fleeing domestic abuse, we should think about the impact that being forced to share rooms might have.
The noble Baroness said that the Government had a moral duty not to facilitate abuse, which she indicated was acknowledged. Even if we look at this issue simply on a financial scale, as some might want to do, we need to consider that the costs of keeping victims of domestic abuse and children in those families in situations of domestic abuse are enormous.
Amendments 150 and 152, which propose that the advance need not be repaid and that the benefit cap be not applied, relate to policies which are hugely damaging to everybody affected by them. Let us think about the domestic abuse situation. Others have focused on the negative impacts; I would invite the Committee to consider the positive impacts of the amendment. If the Government were to give way and this amendment were to be adopted, just think of the relief and the improvement in lives created for victims fleeing domestic abuse by being able to get that modest sum of money, not as an advance but as a payment that could meet essential needs in those five weeks before universal credit kicked in, with no debt burden applied afterwards as a result. If we were to think about simple measures that could be taken at very modest cost, that would be a great case study.
The benefit cap is a hideous, populist, nonsensical measure that plays to the worst of the tabloids. It is often suggested that people would not have children if the benefit cap were applied, but for those fleeing domestic abuse, in almost all cases, when they chose to bear those children, this would not have been at the forefront of their mind.
On Amendment 34, to which I have attached my name, there is a matter that I particularly want to address. In some ways, it could be argued that calling for a report on the impact of universal credit should be unnecessary, but it becomes obvious when thinking about the underlying assumption of universal credit being paid as a household payment. The assumption is that couples work in unison and unity, but that may well not be the case, and not only where domestic abuse happens. It is not reasonable to assume that all money that goes into a household is equally available, or available according to need, to all members of that household. Any kind of power imbalance—it does not need to go to the lengths of domestic abuse—means that there is unequal access to household resources. That is one reason why I very strongly believe in a universal basic income. It would give people agency and control over their lives.
It could be argued that such a report is not necessary, but I refer noble Lords to an excellent report from the Women’s Budget Group entitled Universal Credit and Financial Abuse: Exploring the Links. One element of it looks particularly at financial autonomy, which it defines as reflecting
“independence (having an independent income and a sense of ownership and not having to ask for money); privacy”,
being able to make your financial decisions without surveillance or oversight, and “agency”, which means simply having access to the money. If the Government were to announce that they plan to end the single payment immediately, we would not need this amendment at all. I can but live in hope.
I also want to raise an issue that has not been referred to by anyone else. It was raised by Women’s Aid in 2019 but I do not believe that it has been addressed, although I shall be delighted if the Minister can tell me that I am wrong. I refer to the need to have evidence of universal credit payments to access legal aid. At this point, I should perhaps declare my position on the APPG on Legal Aid. A blog on the Trussell Trust website in the middle of 2019 pointed out that, as it takes time—about five weeks—to get the evidence that universal credit is being received, people are not able to access legal aid, but in that time the victim of domestic abuse might well have to attend court, particularly if there are questions of child access and child residency. That is the nightmare situation for survivors: having escaped an abuser, they are then expected to represent themselves in the family courts and are not even able to have a representative who is not a lawyer to speak for them.
One more issue that I would like to raise is child benefit. It was a universal benefit won by pioneering women MPs in 1975 but, tragically, it was lost in 2013, when the universality was removed with, sadly, little attention or debate. This is applied by means of the high-income child benefit charge, and, from 1 April, it will hit some basic-rate taxpayers for the first time. Is the Minister able, either now or in writing, to address how the high-income child benefit charge interacts with victims of domestic abuse? Clearly, it is a very complex situation.
Again, we come back to the assumption that everyone in a household has access to the resources they need. Even if the household has adequate resources, that is not necessarily the case, and there does not have to be domestic abuse for that to be so. We need benefits for children and individuals—a universal basic income—but, in the meantime, the inclusion of all these amendments in the Bill would be a significant and important step, and I really hope that we will see movement from the Government on this issue.
My Lords, I support this group of amendments, particularly Amendments 153, 150 and 34. As other noble Lords have, I start by congratulating my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett on her excellent introduction to this debate and her tireless campaigning on these issues. I will concentrate in my relatively brief contribution on how the social security system has changed over time to leave victims and survivors of domestic abuse in a worse situation.
At Second Reading, I spoke about a constituent who I had seen in the early 1990s, early in my parliamentary career. She was in her mid to late 60s and came to see me because she had suffered decades of physical and psychological abuse. She had no money and there was nobody with whom she could stay where she would be safe and where her husband would not find her. She had no access to money because her husband controlled all the finances. She had a small state pension, dependent on her husband’s national insurance contribution, but that was paid into the bank account that her husband was the sole controller of. At that point, we were able to assist her in applying for income support to provide money immediately for her to live on and pay for essentials. That claim was processed quickly. However, today she would have the challenge of making a new universal credit claim, facing a minimum five-week delay in payment. That delay means that many rely on food banks and other forms of charitable support. It is no wonder that survivors sometimes question their decision to leave the perpetrator. How can it possibly be right to say to a survivor who is fleeing domestic abuse that they must wait five weeks for a minimum income to be paid?
While survivors can request advances of universal credit to live on, as my noble friend pointed out, these are essentially loans, with repayments of up to 30% deducted from subsequent universal credit payments for up to a year. Research by Refuge found that the majority—57% of survivors of economic abuse—were in debt because of the abuse. This means that survivors fleeing to a new life are having to take on more debt if they apply for the advance. It is hardly surprising that some of them choose instead to live on nothing for at least five weeks for fear of getting into more debt. Refuge argues that survivors fleeing abuse should be exempt from paying back advances, in recognition of the impact of the economic abuse and the traumatic and expensive nature of fleeing an abuser. The Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill agreed that the five-week delay was damaging for survivors and recommended considering converting their advance payments into grants.
Refuge has been supporting women waiting for their first universal credit payment during the Covid-19 pandemic. A combination of food banks experiencing increased demand or scaling back operations and an inability of the survivor to shop around for low-cost food means that many women whom Refuge supports have struggled. Refuge itself has purchased food, using its already limited funds, to help these women. This is unsustainable and a stronger safety net for survivors of domestic abuse is required. Amendment 150 would exempt survivors of domestic abuse from repaying universal credit advances. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to how we might be able to take this forward.
To go back to my constituent, she did not face all those challenges, fortunately, although she faced many others. Because of the local authority, she was able to find somewhere to live in rented accommodation. She did not want to go into a refuge; she felt that it was not suitable for her. The accommodation was not brilliant and it needed repair, but she was safe. She was able to apply for the rent to be paid, which she received, and for emergency grants from social security to buy the basic essentials that she needed for the flat because, of course, she had absolutely nothing after fleeing the perpetrator.
My constituent had no dependent children. If she had dependent children, she would face the two-child limit and possibly the benefit cap. Survivors now face the invidious choice of cutting back on essential living expenses, such as food or heating, compromising their own and their children’s health, or falling into rent arrears and risking eviction because of the way in which the social security system works in relation to their experience.
The Chartered Institute of Housing has provided an excellent briefing—I am sure the Minister will have seen it—which clearly demonstrates that in some cases the abuser receives more money from the benefits system than the survivor when she flees that perpetrator. My constituent was above retirement age, but had she been of working age she would have had either to maintain her employment or to face questions around her availability for work, which is an impossible position. It is a very different world now, with untold challenges in the path of someone fleeing a perpetrator. Since 2010, some social security changes have tried to take account of the needs of survivors of domestic abuse, but unfortunately the limited exemptions and discretions and the interaction of the system simply put more hurdles in their way. Therefore, a fundamental review of the social security system and how it interacts with the reality and experience of those fleeing domestic abuse is crucial.
Finally, I briefly add my support for Amendment 34. Paying universal credit as a single payment into one bank account limits women’s financial independence and access to money. As others have said, it is used by perpetrators to gain immediate control of the entire household income. Survivors can request splits in payments between them and the perpetrator. However, this puts them at serious risk of further abuse, as the perpetrator inevitably finds out that the request has been made. Single payment as a default in universal credit desperately needs further investigation, particularly as it impacts on survivors of domestic abuse. It cannot be right that the social security system, perhaps unwittingly, traps women in abusive relationships or provides a financial advantage to their abuser when they try to flee that relationship. The Domestic Abuse Bill provides an opportunity to tackle this issue and allow victims of abuse to gain full access to the benefits system. My constituent got more help in 1990 than survivors of abuse do now. It is important that in supporting the objectives of the Bill the Government take forward a commitment fundamentally to reflect and investigate how the social security system works when survivors of domestic abuse seek its help and to ensure that those barriers are removed. I therefore support these amendments and sincerely hope that the Minister, who I know is utterly committed to the Bill, will find a way to bring this vital element to bear in achieving the objectives that she so clearly wants to achieve in the Bill.
My Lords, I too wish to mention the brilliant introduction to this group of amendments by my noble friend Lady Lister. I was also completely moved by the speech of my noble friend Lady Primarolo, whose experience I shared in the other place.
Universal credit is complex. It came about after I left the House of Commons and I do not do constituency surgeries any more, but is it working well? I think it was in 2018, as what I might call a floating member of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments at a time when extra members were needed, that I saw first-hand the inability of the DWP to take on board some of the issues.
I have a very brief cautionary tale about universal credit from first-hand experience. Late last year I received a note from the family of a former constituent. They are in Australia, and they were getting hassle from the DWP about debt relating to a Social Fund loan in 1994. The couple in Australia were informed that they were claiming universal credit and that the debt would be taken from their payments each month. It did not take me long to get that sorted—about a month—but when I thought it was all closed, they received more letters demanding repayments.
The alleged debt was from 1994; they have been in Australia since 2006 and the first contact from the DWP was in 2019. They have never had a loan or been on universal credit. In fact, as I informed the DWP, I suspected that there was an internal fraud going on. This got sorted completely just before Christmas when the DWP confirmed that no claim for universal credit had been made by them or anyone using their details. Interestingly, the DWP said in writing: “Regrettably, it appears to be a system error.” So I do not need any lectures from anyone—I know I am not going to get one from the Minister because I have great respect for her—telling me that all is well with universal credit; to judge by my brief experience of a particular case and my experience on the statutory instruments committee, it clearly is not.
On the points made about the split in the benefit and its construction, it was obviously done in such a way that it is completely out of bounds for anyone fleeing a home because of domestic abuse. I certainly hope these points are going to be taken on board.
My Lords, I have been sitting here working out what on earth I could say that would add meaningfully to this fantastic debate. I particularly commend my noble friend Lady Lister, who has always been a stalwart on these matters.
This has taken me back to the Welfare Reform Bill, as it then was, and the endless but pointed debates we had about the problems that were being stacked up by the system being introduced. I remember that at one stage, the Minister complained that food banks had built up because they were a “free good”—which perhaps reflects a bit on how the system was viewed.
It is time for a fundamental review of the system. We have enough expertise in your Lordships’ House, let alone in the other place. We have heard a good deal of that today and we need to build on that. I hope the Minister will support much of what she has heard from noble Lords today. From my point of view, as someone who is rather out of date on these matters, it has been a privilege to listen to such powerful presentations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.
My Lords, first, I apologise for missing the Second Reading of such important and much awaited legislation. Secondly, I apologise for a further glaring error. Last week, at Third Reading of another Bill, I failed to thank the wonderful professionals in the Public Bill Office—Theodore Pembroke, Olivia Crabtree, Mary Harvey and their colleagues, and in the Government Whips’ Office—Victoria Warren, Anishaa Aubeeluck and their team—for their patient and expert support on the scrutiny of Bills to all Peers, without fear or favour. Where would we be also without the virtual proceedings and digital teams? Thirdly, I express my admiration for all noble Lords to whom I listened—on Monday and today—for their many hours of compassionate discourse, not least for those who spoke so bravely from personal experience.
I support the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady Lister, in particular Amendments 152 and 190. There is much in this Bill that aims to provide legal and procedural protections for victims of domestic abuse, and which I commend. If this is not accompanied by an equivalent economic protection—in particular for those reliant on benefits—as a matter of pure, practical logic, these legal protections will prove inadequate.
There was a debate earlier about legal provisions and definitions. These are genuinely complex and difficult. The amendments designed to disapply the benefit cap for 12 months for a domestic abuse survivor making a new universal credit claim in their own name seem uncontroversial. As we have heard, domestic abuse is devastating for anyone, regardless of their sex—or that of their partner—and regardless of nation, region or community, or even of wealth. However, access to sufficient resources for shelter and refuge for oneself and any children are essential to escape, survival and recovery. This is one reason why private client lawyers and higher courts devote so much time and energy to issues of financial relief for wealthy people, often from all over the world.
Adequate resources for escape, survival and recovery are no less important for people without wealth, including the many reliant on benefits. There are now many more, because of the pandemic. They cannot look to lawyers and the courts for financial protection and support. Instead, they must look directly to the Government. This group of survivors is in even greater need of escape routes which are either practically cut off or made much more perilous as a result of the benefits cap, combined with the prohibitive levels of rent, especially in London and the south-east.
The hard evidence shows that, unless disapplied, the cap will overwhelmingly hurt women more than men, and black women in particular. It needs to be spelled out that this is because they are less likely to be in work or have earnings above the threshold. In many cases, responsibility for childcare—or the abuse itself—has prevented them working or being able to find work.
Escaping an abuser is hard enough without the disincentive of being unable to provide decent shelter, food, clothing and remote learning access for your children afterwards. I fear that it would look completely otherworldly if your Lordships’ House did not address the huge barrier to escape that not lifting the benefit cap for survivors presents.
Noble Lords will have been assisted by a host of Civil Society briefings in preparing for these deliberations. I am particularly grateful for the excellent work of the Chartered Institute of Housing and its advice on this issue: identifying gaps, sometimes of hundreds of pounds per month, between the benefits allocation for housing and what is realistic for the rental market in a relevant local authority. In some cases, that is over £400 a month; that is a small fortune for anyone on universal credit. They advised me to prepare for a counter-argument: that victims of domestic abuse should just move away from high-rent areas, perhaps hundreds of miles away, to a new and wholly strange place with, perhaps, more housing stock and lower rents; that they should take their children away from school at the same time as they are taken out of the family home; and that the survivor should give up any network of friends, family, social and emotional support in the hope of being able to just about make ends meet. I cannot believe that anyone in your Lordships’ House would put such a cruel argument in the context of domestic abuse survivors, especially during the passage of legislation specifically designed for their relief.
At the risk of tempting fate, these amendments are the proverbial no-brainer. I look forward to the Minister and all Members of your Lordships’ House giving them an enthusiastic welcome.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti. Like her, I wish to speak to Amendments 152 and 190. The justice of the case for these amendments has been set out in the passionate, eloquent and comprehensive speech of my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett, and the equally powerful speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the other Lords who have spoken in this group. I cannot improve on what they said, but I simply wish to raise one matter of policy.
The cost of accommodation does not count towards the benefit cap if the survivor secures temporary accommodation provided by the local authority under its homelessness duty. Nor does it count if the survivor manages to find a place in a refuge or hostel owned by a social landlord. Currently, if the survivor moves into ordinary rented accommodation, the benefit cap will apply. That obviously means the amount on which the survivor and her children have to live on is diminished, often significantly. That is not good for the survivor and her children but it is also bad policy, which could be reversed by the adoption of these amendments. The amendments, if adopted, would free up refuges, hostels and local authority accommodation, all of which is currently in very short supply. It would also facilitate those who have secured such accommodation, moving out and into the private sector for rented accommodation, which is often cheaper overall. I hope those reasons, in addition to the reasons of justice advance by my noble friends, will persuade the Minister to adopt the amendments.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendments 152 and the related 190, which provide for a period of grace before those who have to leave an abusive relationship become subject to the cap on their benefits. I am honoured to be addressing this issue alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who is such a wonderful campaigner on social security issues, and also the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. Perhaps I could take this opportunity to extend my own welcome to the right reverend Prelate, who is already proving such an asset to your Lordships’ House, not least with his extensive knowledge of the issues of housing and homelessness. The issue covered by Amendment 152 is, in large measure, about housing and housing costs. I declare my interest as chair of the Affordable Housing Commission. I thank the Chartered Institute of Housing for its briefing on this amendment.
The issue here is that the benefits system, with its cap on the total amount of benefit which a household can receive—including the help for housing costs—was not designed to deal with the circumstances of domestic abuse. Without reform, the benefit cap will undermine other positive measures which this very important Bill is introducing. The benefit cap creates particularly severe financial penalties for those who have to end an abusive relationship. Indeed, the financial impact of the cap can mean that someone suffering abuse is simply unable to leave their current accommodation to escape their abuser because of the calamitous loss of income that can involve.
Amendment 152 allows a period of grace before the benefit cap kicks in, giving a bit of time for the household, as appropriate, to find work and avoid the cap or to find accommodation that is affordable within the cap. It does not remove the benefit cap, nor increase it, and the amendment covers only those whose claims arise specifically because of domestic abuse. It proposes a very limited measure, but one which provides an essential breathing space for those who have to end an abusive relationship.
The benefit cap problem is very often caused by the cost of accommodation that is so disproportionate in many areas. The Government did the right thing last year in raising the level of rent which qualifies for housing benefit by returning the local housing allowance—the limit on rental support—to cover the cheapest 30% of rented homes. Although support is not back to the level pertaining before the limits and freezes on housing help were introduced, this change is very helpful. However, it does not assist those affected by the benefit cap: since the cap remains unchanged, being allowed to spend more on the rent simply eats into the support intended for food, heating, clothes, et cetera. Getting help to pay for a higher rent is no help at all if the cap simply means the amount of benefit available for everything else is correspondingly reduced.
Those who must escape an abusive situation need to find somewhere available to live in a hurry, with no time to shop around. Because of the benefit cap, and despite the uplift in the local housing allowance rates, they must search for somewhere cheaper—and they must find that place very quickly.
Some of those forced out of their homes will be accommodated in a refuge or allocated temporary accommodation organised by their local authority. Fortunately, in these circumstances the benefit cap will not apply immediately. But the cap remains a serious problem for them: they will need to move on into a rented flat, and they then face the extreme difficulty of finding somewhere at a rent affordable within the benefit cap.
Issues of domestic abuse throw up special problems of sudden poverty, which the benefit cap currently can greatly exacerbate. The cap traps those affected either by making it impossible to get out of the place where they are subject to the abuse or to leave a temporary home to which they have moved as an interim measure. Given time, the household may find somewhere at a cost within their benefit cap and/or get themselves into paid employment, but they need a period of grace, which this amendment suggests should be 12 months.
The Department for Work and Pensions is already familiar with the need to treat the circumstances of domestic abuse differently—for example, in its requirement to begin seeking employment, which is not the same as for other jobseekers. So, a precedent and the administrative arrangements are already in place to distinguish these cases.
This is a modest but vital change and I hope that the Minister, and her support with us tonight, will be able to bring reassurance from her colleagues at DWP that such a change—at minimal cost to public funds—represents an acceptable improvement to the Bill.
My Lords, I will speak briefly on Amendment 34. I start from the point of having huge respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Lister; her expertise on this subject far outweighs mine. But I have concerns about what she is trying to do. The amendment puts a duty on the domestic abuse commissioner to investigate and report on universal credit payments. I have concerns about this because surely it is vital that we protect the independence of the domestic abuse commissioner, as we have heard from many noble Lords in discussing earlier amendments. The commissioner must be free to set the priorities she chooses; it must be wrong for her to have to report on universal credit or on any other matter.
On the rest of the amendment, as we know, universal credit is a single-household payment. Where a claimant is part of a couple living in the same household, they need to make a joint claim for universal credit. For many legacy benefits, a payment is already made to one member of the household, so the way universal credit is paid is not a new concept, and evidence shows that the vast majority of couples keep and manage their finances together. So payments into a single bank account fit with how most couples organise their finances. Therefore, I am concerned that departing from that would fundamentally change the structure of universal credit, from a single-household payment made to one individual of the benefit unit to payments split between joint claimants by default.
As we all know, a more proportionate response was the creation of split payments to prevent hardship to the claimant and their family. Anyone in a joint claim, including individuals suffering from domestic abuse, can request a split payment arrangement, and it is my understanding the DWP will support them in putting this arrangement in place.
Surely it is important that we allow the individual experiencing domestic abuse to decide whether they think split payments will help their individual circumstances. No information on why a split payment has been requested or granted will be notified to the claimant’s partner. If someone is experiencing domestic abuse, they can tell their work coach in the way that is easiest for them; it is not a requirement for their partner to be involved. As soon as there is awareness of abuse, individuals are signposted to third-party organisations that can provide expert support and advice.
Of course, access to money for those suffering domestic abuse is vital, but the approach in place ensures victims are supported, while the simplicity of the overall system is maintained for others. Sometimes reinventing the wheel can have unintended consequences. I look forward to what the Minister is going to say on this point to reassure me that all those suffering domestic abuse can manage to get their universal credit when required.
My Lords, first, I would like to add my thanks to the chorus of praise that is being heaped on the tremendously clear and cogent introduction by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister.
Many noble Lords and parties outside this place—charities, other groups, news media and so on—have expressed great concern that, at a time when victims are at their most vulnerable, they are being failed by our support systems, which were designed to come to their rescue. We need to know what effect government benefits and interventions are achieving.
I support all these amendments and would have added my name to all of them if there had been space. Amendment 34 calls for the commissioner to look at universal credit split payments. It is probably a deeper question than that, as some of the discussion we have had on this has already revealed. It is a knotty, complex problem, and it very much bears investigation by the domestic abuse commissioner to see what can be done to make the whole system fairer. I have been campaigning for split payments by default for some time. Perhaps we need more, but that would be a very good start.
Amendment 150 is a neat solution to a problem of the Government’s own making. Long delays in the payment of benefits when a victim could be destitute and in need of more financial support to replace belongings they have left behind, find somewhere to stay, et cetera, can lead to extra expense just to survive, so to claw back payments made in advance when they would not have been necessary in the first place if they had been paid promptly is surely adding insult to injury. In the grand scale of moneys paid out by the Government recently to help people disadvantaged by circumstances, it is a drop in the proverbial ocean.
Amendment 152, which would disapply the benefit cap for 12 months after a new claim following a new universal credit claim for a victim of domestic abuse makes a lot of sense. It would enable a victim, desperate for accommodation and some security, to not have to worry if there is one bedroom too many for 12 months while they find their feet. I was shocked to learn from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that a panic room could constitute an additional bedroom, and I very much look forward to the Minster’s response on this because, if that is the case, it really needs sorting out. Is this too much to ask? Perhaps the Minister will tell us what she believes about this cap.
Finally, Amendment 153 would require the Government to assess the impact of any social security reforms on victims or potential victims of abuse. The Government need to know the effect of government policies. If we do not measure the effectiveness of what we are spending, how can we spend taxpayers’ money most effectively to help our offer to these people, the most vulnerable and in need of help in our society? They are not huge measures in terms of cost, but they will give big relief for those who are already suffering.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, including my noble friend Lady Lister for a superb introduction, and for all the great speeches. I am grateful too to those who supplied briefings and to DWP Ministers for meeting us.
The amendments in this group cover four distinct issues, and I shall touch on each. The first is universal credit payments. As we have heard, single household payments actually facilitate financial abuse, because they allow perpetrators to control the entire household income. Claimants can ask for payments to be split but, as my noble friend Lady Lister said, simply asking puts them at risk. Refuge front-line staff say, “It is rarely, if ever, safe for a survivor to request splitting UC payments”. That may explain why it is so rare.
As we have heard, there have been widespread demands from various organisations and committees for Ministers to find a way to separate payments by default. I know that Ministers do not like the idea, partly for operational reasons and partly for the reason mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, that the vast majority of couples keep and manage their finances together. But, as Refuge, points out, for those experiencing economic abuse, their finances are not managed jointly but controlled by their abuser. And this is not a tiny minority. We have heard today that research from Refuge and the Co-op Bank found that 16% of adults had experienced economic abuse from a partner. That research also found that 39% had experienced abusive behaviours, such as not being allowed access to a joint bank account, or being scared into allowing debt in their name. Given the high numbers flowing on to universal credit in the pandemic, this is urgent.
Amendment 34, to which I have added my name, would simply place a duty on the commissioner to investigate the payment of universal credit separately to members of a couple and lay a report before Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, expressed concern that that would be putting an imposition on the commissioner, but I am sure she has noticed that the briefing sent to noble Lords from the office of the commissioner designate actually indicated support for this proposal from my noble friend Lady Lister. So I hope that, on that basis, the Minister will be able to accept it.
Amendment 150 would exempt domestic abuse survivors from having to repay a benefit advance that is made to mitigate the five-week waiting period for universal credit. As we have heard from many noble Lords, those who flee often take little money and few possessions with them. They normally have to make a fresh claim for universal credit, triggering the five-week wait all over again. My noble friend Lady Primarolo explained compellingly why that is such a problem. We have heard evidence that, on average, the survivors of economic abuse are over £3,000 in debt. In addition, a quarter have had their credit rating suffer as a result. There must be a real risk that survivors who want to flee could be deterred because they know it will be five weeks until the first UC payment. They may already be in debt and worried about getting into any more, and if they take an advance, not only does their monthly income fall below the survival limit, they will have other debts to service out of that. If Ministers do not want to accept this amendment, what do they propose to do to support survivors and enable them to flee abuse with enough money to do so?
Then there is the benefit cap, the problem of which was set out irrefutably by the noble Lord, Lord Best. Ministers always argue that people can escape the benefit cap in two ways: by moving to cheaper housing or by getting a job. However, as my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti and others have said, cheaper housing in many areas is like hens’ teeth. Things are worse still for someone fleeing abuse because they might have to move house in a hurry. As my noble friend Lord Hendy pointed out, if someone flees to a refuge they can get an exemption, but it might not be the best place for them, and even if it is they can get stuck there because if they try to move on, they will be hit by the benefit cap. To avoid the cap by getting a job while fleeing abuse is hardly practical. The Government have already recognised this by granting an exemption from the work requirements in UC for someone who has fled abuse in the last six months, but can the Minister tell the Committee what use that exemption is if survivors cannot afford to take advantage of it? That is because they will still be hit by the benefit cap and cannot afford to pay their rent. Amendment 152 would disapply the benefit cap for 12 months for survivors who flee and claim benefits. If the Government will not do this, can the Minister explain why?
I mentioned at Second Reading that a friend contacted me when he claimed universal credit and found that he could see all the messages that his partner had exchanged with his work coach on the UC journal and vice versa. He was concerned about the implications of this practice for those in abusive relationships. I tabled a Written Question. The Minister’s Answer said that claimants should not share sensitive information on the journal. All kinds of information can be sensitive in the context of domestic abuse, such as asking about a job in another sector or a different part of the country, or for certain kinds of support. The noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, said that claimants can contact their coach or the department in whatever way they want. Indeed, I was told again in the Answer that claimants can always phone their case manager. That betrays a lack of understanding of what it must be like to be trapped in a flat with an abusive partner who watches over every phone call they make—especially in a pandemic. Can the Minister please tell us that this will be looked at again?
If the provisions of Amendment 153 were in place there would be a duty on the Government to assess the impact of any social security reforms on the victims or potential victims of domestic abuse. Had that been done before creating universal credit, or before imposing the benefit cap or the bedroom tax, it might have shown up these problems at an earlier stage and solutions could have been designed. Many of us raised these issues in the early stages of the Welfare Reform Bill, but a formal impact assessment would have forced the Government to recognise that there were issues.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester said, our social security system should make it possible for survivors to flee abuse and rebuild their lives. However, I am afraid that, as my noble friends Lord Rooker and Lord McKenzie, the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Bennett, and others have said, the system currently fails in that task and it urgently needs reform. I hope that the Minister agrees and I look forward to her reply.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for explaining her amendments, which relate to the operation of the welfare system, including universal credit, and its impact on victims of domestic abuse. The Department for Work and Pensions is committed to providing a compassionate welfare system which provides the best possible support for all customers, including the most vulnerable in society, such as victims of domestic abuse. In answer to her question, we have regular discussions with the DWP and other government departments on domestic abuse because we see it as a whole-of-government issue and response.
Amendment 34 would place a legal duty on the domestic abuse commissioner to investigate one particular issue—the payment of universal credit separately to members of a couple—and lay a report to Parliament. I will come on to the substance of the concern about universal credit, but it is worth first making an observation about the approach taken in the amendment. My noble friend Lady Chisholm of Owlpen said that, as an independent office holder, it should be for the domestic abuse commissioner to set her own priorities as set out in her strategy plan, as provided for in Clause 13. I submit that we should not be mandating her to produce a report on universal credit or on any other matter, as is consistent with her title of being independent.
Aside from this question of the commissioner’s independence, I share absolutely the noble Baroness’s determination to support and protect victims of domestic abuse through the welfare system. However, on the underlying substance of the amendment, the Government do not believe that introducing split payments of universal credit between couples by default is appropriate. For many legacy benefits, a payment is already made to one member of the household, so the way that universal credit is paid is not a new concept. Additionally, evidence shows that the great majority of couples keep and manage their finances together. Consequently, most couples can and want to manage their finances jointly without state intervention.
We recognise that there are circumstances in which split payments are appropriate. Where a customer discloses that they are a victim of domestic abuse in an ongoing relationship, then, where suitable, the Department for Work and Pensions can make split payments available to provide them with access to independent funds. It is important that we allow the individual experiencing domestic abuse to decide whether split payments will help their individual circumstances. The department will also signpost individuals affected by abuse to specialist support, and work with them to ensure that they are aware of the other support and easements available under universal credit. These include special provisions for temporary accommodation, easements to work conditionality, same day advances and additional support for children conceived during an abusive relationship.
In July 2019, messaging was introduced to the universal credit digital claim system to encourage claimants in joint claims to nominate the bank account of the main carer for payment. We continue our support of payment of universal credit to the main carer through this messaging. This strikes the right balance between encouraging positive behaviour and allowing claimants to choose how to best manage their finances. A move to split payments with all couples would represent a fundamental change to the principles of universal credit. Operational challenges aside, the proposed change in policy would be inappropriate for some vulnerable people, for example where one partner is a carer for the other, or one partner has addiction issues.
There would also be practical challenges. For example, there are 1.3 million unbanked adults in the UK, and most are on a low income or are unemployed. The Government are working to improve financial inclusion, but it remains that a move to split payments by default could result in unnecessary payment delays for unbanked claimants. A split payment by default model might also reduce financial independence for women in some cases. Analysis suggests that about 60% of joint universal credit payments are made to women.
As I said, the Department for Work and Pensions is committed to providing a safety net welfare system that provides the best possible support for all customers, including the most vulnerable. To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that is why the department has completed a significant training programme and implemented domestic abuse single points of contact for every jobcentre. These actions will help ensure that jobcentre customer services managers and work coaches have the right capabilities, tools and local relationships to support customers who are experiencing or fleeing domestic abuse. We are proud of the positive cultural change we have been able to achieve in jobcentre sites; and that departmental awareness of, and support for, those who have suffered or are suffering domestic abuse is better than ever.
I understand the intention of Amendment 150 is to ensure that victims of domestic abuse can receive universal credit advances in the form of grants. I note that the amendment affects the conditions only for the payment of budgeting advances. Budgeting advances provide one-off emergency payments for claimants or are related to obtaining or retaining employment, whereas new claim and change of circumstances advances provide claimants with an advance of their UC award. As currently drafted, the amendment will waive only the recoverability and eligibility criteria of budgeting advances for domestic abuse victims.
The Department for Work and Pensions offers new claim advances that allow claimants to access 100% of their estimated universal credit payment up front. We can help claimants, including victims of domestic abuse, to apply for an advance with payment being made within 72 hours or even on the same day, in some circumstances. With a universal credit advance, a claimant’s universal credit award will be phased across 13 payments in a year, rather than 12, and the maximum level of monthly deduction they will face is 30% of their standard allowance. Deferrals are also available for the phasing of new claim advances, meaning that claimants can extend the phasing of their 13 UC payments for up to an additional three months, in exceptional circumstances.
In addition, change of circumstances advances are available to claimants where a change of circumstances, such as the birth of a child, means that their universal credit award will significantly increase in the next payment. The additional payment of a change of circumstances advance would be used to cover the additional costs incurred by claimants until they receive their increased UC award at the end of their assessment period. These advances are phased across six months.
This amendment also seeks to make budgeting advances non-recoverable for victims of domestic abuse, alongside removing eligibility criteria. Budgeting advances are available to purchase one-off emergency items or for obtaining or retaining employment. To be eligible, claimants must have been in receipt of benefits for six months, have repaid any existing budgeting advance amount and earned less than £2,600 in the previous six months, if a single claimant. For claimants who receive a budgeting advance to obtain or retain employment, the six-month benefit criteria are waived and the required earnings threshold recalculated. This one-off payment of a budgeting advance is recovered over 12 months, although this can be extended to 18 months in exceptional circumstances.
If the Government were to issue universal credit advances as grant payments for victims of domestic abuse, as suggested by the noble Baroness’s amendment, this would raise equality concerns and inevitably lead to calls for the measure’s extension to other groups. Moreover, to mitigate the potential of increased fraud that universal credit grants could cause, we would have to introduce an additional manual assessment to verify the claimant’s circumstances ahead of payment. This could delay payment to claimants, when our first priority should be to urgently give individuals support.
Moving on to the other feature of the amendment, the Government do not feel that we should waive the eligibility criteria for budgeting advances. These eligibility criteria include a low-income threshold because we believe that, in the majority of situations, a claimant’s universal credit award will be able to cover the costs of emergency items. However, to support those in particular hardship, budgeting advances provide one-off payments for claimants who may not be able to afford these emergency items without additional support.
The condition of being able to claim only one budgeting advance at a time is to protect our claimants and prevent additional fraud in universal credit. If claimants were to take out multiple budgeting advances, they would face recovery payments taken from their universal credit awards for a potentially longer period. We would also see increased efforts to obtain budgeting advances fraudulently if individuals could claim several at a time.
It is important to note the changes that the Government will make to the advances policy to smooth the universal credit journey for all claimants. From October this year, we will give claimants the option to phase their universal credit payments across a longer time. Claimants will be able to phase their universal credit payments over 24 months rather than 12, giving them more flexibility over the allocation of their UC award. Moreover, to support those on universal credit to repay debts in a more sustainable way, the normal maximum level of deductions that can be taken from a household’s universal credit award will be further reduced to 25% of a claimant’s standard allowance from October.
Amendment 152 seeks to provide for survivors of domestic abuse to be exempt from the application of the benefit cap for 12 months when a universal credit claim is being considered. The benefit cap seeks to restore fairness between those receiving benefits and taxpayers. It provides an incentive to move into work where possible. There is clear evidence that work, particularly full-time work, substantially reduces the likelihood of being in poverty; children in workless families are around three times more likely to be in poverty, compared to families where at least one adult works. As the noble Baroness is aware, the likelihood of a survivor having the benefit cap applied is already reduced, because of the exemptions in place to provide breathing space while people stabilise their situation. For example, where housing benefit is paid in respect of a person in a refuge, it is excluded from the calculation of the benefit cap.
Claimants who need additional support to meet rental costs can approach their local authority for a discretionary housing payment, as outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo. Over £1 billion in discretionary housing payments has been provided to local authorities since 2011; £180 million in discretionary housing payments is available for local authorities to distribute in 2020-21; and £140 million will be made available through discretionary housing payments for the next financial year, 2021-22, the same as in 2019-20. The Department for Work and Pensions produces guidance to help local authorities administer the discretionary housing payment scheme. This guidance suggests that DHP support should be prioritised for the most vulnerable; it specifically cites households with young children and those fleeing domestic abuse.
Finally, Amendment 153 would require the Department for Work and Pensions to assess the impact of welfare reforms on victims of domestic abuse. This amendment is also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. The DWP is already obliged to consider the impacts of its policies through equality assessments, in accordance with the public sector equality duty. Changes to welfare regulations will involve consideration of the likely impact of those changes. Furthermore, the department consistently reviews and is striving to improve services.
If I may, I will write to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on her point about child benefit. On the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, about the sanctuary scheme as related to the spare-room subsidy, the Government recognise the important role that this scheme can play in a victim’s long-term safety and well-being. Work is under way to establish what steps are necessary to support claimants who live in a sanctuary scheme property and are affected by the removal of the spare-room subsidy. Discretionary housing payments continue to be available, at the discretion of local authorities, for claimants who need additional financial support towards housing costs. We have provided guidance for local authorities to recommend that, where a claimant lives in a sanctuary scheme, that is considered when deciding whether to award a DHP.
In conclusion, the Department for Work and Pensions is committed to providing a welfare system that provides the best possible support for all customers. That includes universal credit claimants and the most vulnerable in society.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I will not go through all those who supported the amendments individually, but their contributions deepened the case that I made and brought a number of different, very helpful perspectives to it. I add my welcome to the right reverend Prelate and look forward to his future contributions to our debates on these and related issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, did not support the amendments. I hope that she will not mind if I address what she said along with what the Minister said, because she made some of the same points. I am grateful to the Minister for her full and detailed response. I am not going to try and answer it all now: I need to read what she said in Hansard. Some of her points were ones that I and other noble Lords had already countered in our contributions, so I do not want to go over all of that.
I take the point about the domestic abuse commissioner, but my understanding is that she is sympathetic. I know that she is certainly very concerned about economic abuse and I understand that she is, in a sense, already undertaking an investigation on community-based services which will be relevant to a later amendment for the Government.
Both the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, made a point about legacy benefits. The whole point of universal credit is that it puts all your eggs in one basket. With legacy benefits, one benefit might be going to the man in the household; another, probably the one for children, to the woman—child benefit still does usually. This is why this has become an issue now. It was not the same under legacy benefits, yet Ministers continue to trot this argument out as if legacy benefits were somehow the same: they were not. Putting everything into one basket in that way is one of the problems with universal credit.
My noble friend Lady Sherlock, other noble Lords and I made the point that it is simply too risky to ask for a split payment. It may be done in privacy but men—it usually is men—are not so stupid that they do not realise that if the benefit they are getting is suddenly halved, that may be the reason for it. Women are, of course, frightened to go back and face the consequences. As my noble friend Lady Sherlock said, refuge workers on the ground say that women are just too scared to ask for split payments: they are not an answer. I know that the best way of doing this is complex and that is why a review, which has to be independent, is the best way to deal with it.
I am glad that the Minister referred to training, but she did not actually answer my questions on it. I would be grateful if, when she writes following this debate, she answers my specific questions on that.
I will not try to go through everything else that has been said; as I say, I need to read the details. I am glad that the Home Office is having regular discussions with the DWP on these issues, but, while it may not be able to say this to us, the evidence must worry it that what is happening in the social security system is undermining its objectives for dealing with domestic abuse, particularly economic abuse. I hope that it will relay to the DWP the messages that came across from virtually everyone who spoke in today’s very good debate —because we owe it to women who are suffering, or survivors of, domestic abuse to provide a social security system that gives them genuine security. However, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 34 withdrawn.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9: Advice and assistance
Amendments 35 and 36 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Clauses 10 and 11 agreed.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 37. 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 debate.
Clause 12: Advisory Board
37: Clause 12, page 7, line 13, leave out “and not more than ten”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would remove the upper limit for members of the Commissioner’s advisory board.
My Lords, this group of Amendments 37, 38, 39, 40 and 43 relates to Clause 12 on the advisory board. I will not introduce Amendment 39, to which my noble friends Lord Paddick and Lady Featherstone will speak, but I agree with what I expect them to say.
At Second Reading, we heard various bids for inclusion in the advisory board, and we heard one, or possibly more, in previous groups in Committee. This prompted me to think about the functions of the advisory board and how it might operate, hence our Amendment 38. Should the members act as representatives of different sectors? Is the term “represent” quite appropriately descriptive of what they will do? Why will they be appointed? This will probably be to give advice across the issues, through the particular lens of their own experience, so that the commissioner has three-dimensional views, if you like.
Of course, they will put forward points of view from within their own sectors, but they will not only make the case for them; I am sure advocacy for resources for sectors will be very likely. As such, I thought I would try the phrase “expertise and experience”—I subsequently found that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, had also picked the term “expertise”. I have applied this to the first of the categories in Clause 12(4), on “victims of domestic abuse”. I would not preclude advocacy, but, rather than special pleading, the commissioner will want advice across the board, built on all of the advisers’ various expertise.
We also have an amendment relating to Clause 12(4)(e), which requires there to be a person
“with functions relating to policing or criminal justice”.
I do not know whether I should read into this that the police are not part of the criminal justice system but, to me, the point is that, if they are regarded as separate, then having experience and expertise in both is necessary.
I have included an addition to the list—children. That is expressed as
“expertise and experience in children’s health and wellbeing.”
There has, quite rightly, been a focus on children, although for the purposes of the Bill they are victims and Clause 12(4)(a) will apply, but their needs are not the same as those of adults. Perhaps I should say that they are very particular needs.
Of course, I am aware that each item in the list is prefaced by the words “at least one”, so there can be more than one representative for each of the categories. I also note that Clause 12(2) stipulates a minimum of six—that is, the list in subsection (4)—with a possible additional four members. Why is there a maximum of 10? We wondered whether to propose 12, but in fact decided that this should be a matter for the commissioner. Indeed, why put an upper limit in legislation?
This afternoon and on Monday, we talked quite a bit about the independence of the commissioner, but the fact is that her—or his, in due course—resources are inevitably limited by the Secretary of State. Is this a necessary control? Can she not be trusted to do the sensible thing in designing the advisory group and appointing members to it? I beg to move.
The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who is next on the list of speakers, has withdrawn her name, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.
My Lords, I wish to speak on Amendment 39, which is grouped with Amendments 37, 38, 40 and 43. Before I start, I just say how good it was to listen to the contribution that my noble friend Lady Hamwee has just made.
I intend, in effect, to identify some of the issues that have been taken up previously. I am pleased to say that my noble friend Lord Paddick spoke about this matter at Second Reading, and he is backed up by my noble friend Lady Featherstone. At Second Reading, he was able to identify why such a provision in the Bill is necessary. The amendment seeks to ensure that at least one person on the advisory board has experience with regard to the interest of male victims and those in same-sex relationships. My noble friend Lady Featherstone was responsible for equality issues during her time at the Home Office, and her ministerial experience is very useful in contributing on this matter. Of course, I always bow to the knowledge of my noble friends Lady Hamwee and Lady Burt.
This legislation makes considerable improvements to the way in which we deal with female victims. That must never be underestimated, and rightly so, but we have the opportunity to ensure that male victims of domestic abuse, who, according to ONS statistics, make up 35% of victims, have the same opportunity to pursue their grievances. In any gender-neutral legislation, a programme of public education on this point is vital.
I am surprised that only 1% of funding is allocated to male victims, according to the briefing I have received. I am told that male victims are three times less likely to report their abuse to police. I was engaged in the work of the former Commission for Racial Equality and firmly believe that support should be granted to all victims regardless of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age and ability. Perhaps the Minister could look at this issue. We should not give an impression that the Bill has less focus on male victims. Some of the suggestions I have made clearly point towards this interpretation which should be avoided. I urge the Minister to support a gender-neutral approach in the guidance on the Domestic Abuse Bill, which so far seems to lack such an explanation. I will go further. We need to build the confidence of people who may want to use this legislation to advance their cause by giving them confidence to do so by making sure that gender includes men, so I make that suggestion to the Minister.
My Lords, I strongly support Amendments 37 and 38. I like the idea of the commissioner establishing an advisory board. I am sure it will be helpful, although it is puzzling why the membership has been restricted to not fewer than six and not more than 10. It is interesting that the membership has to comprise, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, representatives of victims of domestic abuse, charities and other organisations, healthcare services, social care services, police and criminal justice and academic expertise. I have no problem with that range of expertise, but the membership surely needs to be wider. We have already had, or will have, amendments suggesting that we should have experts in children and young people, substance abuse, psychological therapy and speech therapy. I would welcome giving the commissioner a little more discretion and allowing her to appoint more than 10 people if she wishes to do so. As it is entirely in her own hands, she clearly will not want a huge number of people, but having a little more flexibility would be helpful.
I support Amendment 38 very strongly. It is surprising and highly unusual that members of an advisory board should be described in legislation as representatives of the interest described in the clause. Surely we have moved on from representative bodies such as that. In my experience—I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—committees that are made up of representatives of certain interests find it very difficult to act corporately because they feel the need to fight the corner of their own interest. That goes against all good governance. I know this is an advisory committee, rather than a corporate governance body per se, but the principles of good governance surely ought to remain none the less, so the last thing the commissioner needs is a body where people are too busy protecting their own perceived interest and are not thinking about the integrated approach that is necessary. I strongly urge the Government to revisit this. They will find that in public organisations—and I am sure it is the same in other sectors—the idea that today we appoint people to be representative rather than to bring a breadth of experience and work together is not right, and I hope the Government will agree to reverse this.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 39, in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, on the composition of the advisory board. This amendment is straightforward and brief, and is simply to ensure that men who are abused and those in same-sex relationships have a knowledgeable and expert advocate on that board.
As a Home Office Minister and Equalities Minister during the coalition, with responsibility for domestic violence in my portfolio, I met victims of all types and visited refuges of all types. The different issues that arise for men who are abused can be profound. As my noble friend Lord Dholakia said, they are less likely to report abuse and often feel ashamed if they are abused. They can feel that they are not proper men and more, so there is a need for specialist response and services. The same is true with the issues in same-sex relationships.
Of course, the majority of domestic abuse is against women by men and I know that among the many fantastic groups, charities and provision for women there is a wealth of experience. However, a substantial minority of men are victims too and their experience can often be less well understood. I noted the Minister’s earlier remarks about ensuring that the commissioner has freedom to appoint to her own requirements, and I know that it is the intention of this Bill that all people who suffer domestic abuse are covered by the legislation. However, I believe that it is important to ensure that this expertise is mandated in the board’s structure to enable it to succeed fully in its function, as the advisory board will be such an important underpinning for the commissioner. I am sure that there will still be, and should be, as other noble Lords have said, latitude for the commissioner to appoint above and beyond any statutory places.
My Lords, there appears to be no reasonable argument for limiting the number of members of the advisory board. Surely there should be as many as the commissioner believes to be reasonably necessary, as suggested by our Amendment 37. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee has explained, it should not be that at least one member of the board must represent the interests of victims of domestic abuse, but that they should have expertise and experience with regard to the victims of domestic abuse. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his support on this point.
It is quite clear that different victims will have different needs, in particular, those from minority groups, including black, Asian and other ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, male victims and those from sexually and gender-diverse groups. Were there to be a representative from each of these groups, it would be a very large advisory board indeed. Someone could have expertise in and experience of dealing with more than one minority group, hence Amendment 38.
Amendment 40 suggests that at least one member of the advisory board should have
“experience of or expertise in both”
policing and criminal justice, and not, as Clause 12(4)(e) suggests, that they
“represent the interests of … policing or criminal justice.”
As my noble friend Lady Hamwee has explained, it is essential that the police, the CPS, the courts and the prison and probation services all work together to tackle domestic abuse. Therefore, it should not be, as the Bill currently suggests, someone representing either the police or other parts of the criminal justice system.
Again, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee has said, having included children as victims in Clause 3, it seems necessary to have someone with expertise and experience in children’s health and well-being on the advisory board. The lifelong impact of adverse childhood experiences on the health, well-being and propensity of young people to engage in criminality is well documented. Witnessing domestic abuse is but one of these ACEs.
I thank my noble friends Lord Dholakia and Lady Featherstone for their support for my Amendment 39, which, as my noble friend Lady Featherstone said, is small, important, but not uncontroversial. We will come on to a fuller discussion of whether domestic abuse is a gendered issue in subsequent groups but, according to the Office for National Statistics, one-third of victims of domestic abuse are male, as my noble friend Lord Dholakia said. Of the two-thirds of victims who are female, some of that abuse will have occurred in same-sex relationships. It is therefore important that the advisory board includes at least one person who appears to the commissioner to have expertise and experience with regard to all victims of domestic abuse—not only women victims of male domestic abuse but male victims and those from sexually and gender-diverse groups.
In her letter dated yesterday, the Minister offers some reassurance in respect of male victims but the issue is wider than that. I am reassured by what she says, in that the statutory guidance provided for in Clause 73, the draft of which I have yet to fully consider, will, among other things, include types of abuse that are experienced by specific communities or groups such as male victims. The Minister goes on to say that the Government are determined to support victims and survivors, regardless of gender, but the Government must specifically ensure that support is available for female victims and survivors in same-sex relationships, and gender non-conforming victims and survivors, as well as male victims. Having someone with experience and expertise in dealing with all these issues on the advisory board will go some way towards ensuring that that is the case.
I completely accept that the majority of domestic abuse is the result of male violence against women but that is not exclusively, or even overwhelmingly, the case, and every victim, every survivor of domestic abuse, deserves to have a voice on the advisory board.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate, revolving around the role of the advisory board and whether we are looking for people with experience and expertise, or those who represent specific interests.
Clause 12(4) indicates that of the six specific types of people who must be on the board, five are described as representing specific interests and only one is not. It would be helpful if the Government could explain the basis for determining which persons as representatives, with one exception, the advisory board must include. If the Government can answer why they have listed the types of people who have to be on the board, it might help us to form a better view of exactly what the Government see as the role of the advisory board. I appreciate that Clause 12(1) states that the advisory board is
“for the purposes of providing advice to the Commissioner about the exercise of the Commissioner’s functions.”
However, that is pretty vague, and it would help if the Government said what kind of advice they are expecting this advisory board to provide about the exercise of the commissioner’s functions.
I would rather take the view that there must be a case for leaving the commissioner with greater scope than he or she will have for deciding who they want on the advisory board. It can currently have a maximum of 10 members, as laid down in the Bill, but the Government have already determined who six of those members will be. One finds this a bit of a contrast to the discussion on the previous group of amendments on a totally different issue. When it came to an investigation into universal credit and domestic abuse, it was suggested that we should not be tying the commissioner’s hands or telling them what to do. Yet when it comes to the advisory board, which can only have a maximum of 10, the commissioner is told in very specific terms who 60% of the membership of that board have got to be and who they are to represent—with one exception being a person with academic expertise.
Can the Government explain why they have come to the conclusion they have about the six people who must be on the board and who they should represent? Can they give some examples of the kinds of advice they think the advisory board might be able to give? Can they clarify the point that has been raised about whether they see people on the board as being representatives of particular groups, or whether they are looking for people whose primary assets are experience and expertise in this field? If we can get some answers to those questions, as well as the other questions asked in this debate, we might be able to better understand the Government’s thinking behind Clause 12.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. As noble Lords have outlined, these amendments all relate to the composition of the advisory board that will provide the commissioner with advice on the exercise of her functions. The advice could span a range of issues but is expected to contribute towards the development of the commissioner’s strategic plans, at the very least.
It is important that the advisory board contains a broad range of interests and represents a number of key statutory agencies and domestic abuse experts. I could start listing them, but then noble Lords might hold me to my words. But I can give examples. For example, they might have experience in housing or refuges or have medical experience, and so on and so forth. To maximise the effectiveness of the board, it is required to have no fewer than six members and no more than 10. That is to ensure that the board remains focused and provides clear advice to the commissioner.
Amendment 37 seeks to lift the upper limit on the membership of the board. We think that a maximum membership of 10 is appropriate to ensure that the board can operate effectively and efficiently. It does not preclude the commissioner from also seeking advice from other sources, but we need to avoid creating an unwieldy board which cannot then provide effective support to the commissioner.
In relation to Amendment 38, I do not believe there is any real practical difference here. To be able to represent, for example, the providers of health care services, I would expect the relevant member to have experience and expertise in this field. I suggest that we can leave it to the good judgement of the commissioner to appoint suitably qualified individuals.
Amendments 39, 40 and 43 all seek to add to the categories of persons who must be presented on the board. As I have indicated, we risk creating a board that is too unwieldy and therefore cannot effectively discharge its functions and support the commissioner in her role. An advisory board member could represent the interests of more than one group. For example, they could represent the interests of victims of domestic abuse, while also representing the interests of specialist charities. The structure provided for in Clause 12 confers sufficient latitude on the commissioner to include other key areas of expertise, such as in relation to children.
In addition to this board, through her terms and conditions of employment the commissioner will be required to establish a victims and survivors advisory group to ensure that it engages directly with victims and survivors in its work. The commissioner may also establish any other groups as she sees fit. While the appointments are a matter for the commissioner, I expect the membership of the victims and survivors advisory group to be representative of all victims of domestic abuse—a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.
The advisory board must be able to operate efficiently and effectively. It is important that it has a balanced membership, with expertise in critical areas relating to supporting and protecting all victims and bringing perpetrators to justice. Clause 12 strikes the right balance, setting out minimum and maximum representation but otherwise giving the commissioner the space to appoint the right individuals to the board. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness is content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I have received no requests to speak after the Minister, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to conclude the debate on her amendment.
My Lords, I am glad that three of my noble friends spoke about male victims. I do not think we can remind ourselves too often that, whatever the language in the Bill—I am well aware of the lengths to which the Government have gone to express the Bill and supporting documents in gender-neutral language—the Bill is also about awareness. We have a task to make ourselves and others aware that it is not a gendered issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made the point about governance far more clearly than I did. I was indeed thinking about an integrated approach.
The Minister started on a list of those who might be members of the advisory board. I do not know whether she stopped herself because she realised she was making my point for me—that was certainly how I heard it—but she also said we should leave it to the commissioner to find the right individuals to represent these various categories. We should leave it to the commissioner and trust the commissioner to create an effective, efficient advisory board and to achieve the balance to which the Minister referred. I had thought there might be something more about this in the draft framework document, but essentially it repeats what is in the Bill.
I do not think the Minister replied to the point about the term “represent”. Indeed, she used that term herself. I remain really concerned about that, because I do not think that properly describes what the advisory board—as a body made up of a group of individuals, but we should look at it as a body—is really there to achieve.
I rather feel that the Government’s answer to all the amendments in the group is “not invented here, so sorry”. It sounded more like “not invented here” than “not necessary”. However, we will consider whether we pursue some of these points at the next stage, and I hope we do. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 37 withdrawn.
Amendments 38 to 43 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 44. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make this clear in debate.
Clause 13: Strategic plans
44: Clause 13, page 8, line 25, at end insert “who must respond to the consultation within 28 days”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to respond to consultation under Clause 13 within 28 days.
My Lords, this is a simple, straightforward amendment which prevents the Secretary of State sitting on the strategic plan consultation. It has been known for a busy Secretary of State to treat a consultation as less urgent than many other items in her in tray. I am sure it would never be the case with this Secretary of State, but the provision in the amendment serves to focus the mind of the officeholder—whoever they are—and ensure that this hugely important plan is given the priority it deserves and is not unduly delayed.
My Lords, in the debate on the last group of amendments, I referred to the draft framework document, which, with regard to the advisory board, says more or less what is in the Bill. The draft document does not in fact cover a great deal beyond what is in the Bill, although it uses more informal language. But one thing it does say is this. At paragraph 5.19, it refers to the strategic plan and the commissioner’s duty to consult the Home Secretary, among others, stating that:
“Although not prescribed by the Act, the Home Office will provide a response to the Commissioner’s consultation on the strategic plan within 28 calendar days of receipt.”
It is not prescribed by the Act, but we think that it could be. I wonder why this is one of the very few items in the draft framework document that is not in the Bill. Are the Government concerned that, over time, this might slip? I hope not.
My Lords, we agree in principle with the spirit of this amendment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has indicated, the draft framework document already requires the Home Secretary to respond within 28 days. We agree that such a response needs to be provided promptly, so that the commissioner can finalise and publish her strategic plan. Where we disagree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Burt of Solihull, is on whether this level of detail is appropriate to put on the face of the Bill.
We submit that it is more properly a matter for the framework document, which must be agreed with the commissioner. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, quoted from paragraph 5.19 of that document, which says that the Home Office will provide a response within 28 calendar days of receipt.
I do not intend to be flippant, but sometimes things take longer than expected. In debating this amendment, we have only now reached the target that we set for the first day of Committee. If things are to be done thoroughly, as they always and rightly are in your Lordships’ House, they sometimes take longer than anticipated. I am happy to give an assurance from the Dispatch Box to the same effect as that set out in paragraph 5.19 of the framework document: the Home Office will provide a response within 28 calendar days of receipt. I hope that, with that assurance, the noble Baroness will be willing to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I and, I am sure, my noble friend Lady Hamwee are very grateful for the Minister’s response and assurances. Obviously we will take that back, and I assume there is nothing to come back on. Certainly, for the time being, we are very happy with that, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 44 withdrawn.
Clause 13 agreed.
Clause 14: Annual reports
Amendments 45 to 49 not moved.
Clause 14 agreed.
Clause 15: Duty to co-operate with Commissioner
Amendment 50 not moved.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 51. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
51: Clause 15, page 9, line 42, at end insert—
“(r) the Independent Office for Police Conduct;(s) HM Prison Service;(t) the National Probation Service;(u) the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman;(v) the Chief Coroner.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would extend the list of public authorities which have a duty to co-operate with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to include the Independent Office for Police Conduct, HM Prison Service, the National Probation Service, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and the Chief Coroner.
This suite of amendments is designed to extend the list of public authorities that have a duty to co-operate with the commissioner to bodies that may well be able to give additional and, arguably, deeper insight into the victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse: the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the Prison Service and National Probation Service and their ombudsman, and the Chief Coroner. These bodies all throw a light on how and why things go wrong.
Amendment 54 would enable the commissioner to get information on any reviews and investigations regarding deaths where domestic abuse had been a factor. Those public authorities must notify the commissioner and the Home Office within 28 days of the outcome of the investigations. The commissioner can advise on good policy and practice only when she has all the information —all the reports, reviews, findings and investigations at her disposal—to be able to piece together what has gone wrong, why it went wrong and how it can be put right.
Proposed new subsection (5) would give additional powers to the Secretary of State. The amendment also gives the Secretary of State the power to add or remove additional public authorities as he or she sees fit, but only authorities added under this clause, not under Clause 15(3), which we discussed under Amendment 51. Furthermore, in Amendment 189, all amendments subsequently covered by the amended Clause 15 could not be removed without the affirmative procedure. In summary, the Secretary of State could add and take away public bodies that they themselves had added but not the ones prescribed in the Bill. They could also issue guidance for circumstances where domestic abuse had been shown to be a contributing factor, which of course that public authority would have to have regard to.
We could have a productive working relationship here, where the commissioner makes recommendations and the Secretary of State, if they chose, makes the guidance. This guidance could be changed by the Secretary of State from time to time, but not without consulting the commissioner.
Lastly, Amendment 189 would ensure that any public authority included in the amended—I hope—Clause 15 could not be removed without an affirmative resolution, at the behest not of the Secretary of State but of Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, on her speech. She set out the case for the amendments very eloquently. I will speak to Amendments 51 and 54 to which my name is attached. If the horror of losing someone you love is not bad enough, many families, in particular in cases of domestic abuse homicide and suicide, have to put up with the reality that their loved ones may have been saved had earlier interventions been made. This is why I am supporting the amendments put forward by the designate domestic abuse commissioner to establish an oversight mechanism on investigations into domestic abuse related homicides and suicides. She is someone who knows what needs to be done and we should support her with what seem like reasonable and sensible asks.
The number of women being killed by men has not budged at all over the past decade. Clearly, much more work has to be done to identify the changes needed to prevent future deaths. I believe that Amendments 51 and 54 in particular would be an important step on that journey. An oversight mechanism is absolutely critical. There is a great deal of learning coming from domestic homicide reviews, which were introduced in 2011, and from bereaved families’ selfless contributions, but the lack of oversight and of publication of findings at a national level means that this learning is often being lost or limited to local areas. DHRs, for instance, can be desperately hard to find, buried on community safety partnership websites, which means that wider learning can become next to impossible.
It is also too often the case that recommendations are not implemented effectively or are implemented in the short term, but actions drift over time. A clear oversight and accountability mechanism, led by the commissioner working with the Home Office, would help to drive effective implementation and share lessons nationally in the long term as well as the short term. As a police officer put it to me this week, one recommendation that is good for one force will probably be good for forces all over the country. The same mistakes will be happening again and again, and that simply cannot carry on when we have a death toll as high as we do.
Beyond domestic homicide reviews, there is a range of other investigations into the circumstances surrounding an individual’s death which contain recommendations relating to the response of public authorities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, set out. There is currently, however, no systematic way of identifying these investigations for the purpose of ensuring that recommendations are followed up and that key themes across investigations are examined and acted on in order to prevent future deaths. I believe that Amendments 51 and 54 would help address this.
I will finish by talking briefly about suicide. Mental health has been talked about in previous groupings, and I thought my noble friend the Minister gave some very thorough and thoughtful answers. Sadly, not enough data and shared learning are being collected on suicides as a result of domestic abuse. The correlation is undoubtedly high, but we really do not have a clear picture of the true scale of the problem. One report published by the University of Bristol suggested that nearly 200 victims a year went on to kill themselves on the same day they visited A&E with a domestic abuse related injury. If these figures are accurate, the scale of missed interventions is simply unacceptable. Amendments 51 and 54 would surely complement the endeavour to join up multi-agency thinking and accountability, especially regarding health care providers who we know have such a big role to play. I therefore urge noble Lords to back these amendments.
My Lords, I am speaking in support of Amendment 51, which would extend the list of public authorities that have a duty to co-operate with the domestic abuse commissioner, to include the Independent Office for Police Conduct, Her Majesty’s Prison Service, the National Probation Service, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, and the Chief Coroner. I am speaking also in support of Amendment 54, which would place a new duty on public authorities to carry out reviews and investigations into deaths where domestic abuse has been identified as a contributory factor, to notify the Secretary of State for the Home Office and the office of the domestic abuse commissioner on completion, and to provide them with a copy of their findings.
Thus, the domestic abuse commissioner is proposing to establish an oversight mechanism on investigations into domestic abuse related homicides and suicides. They are intended to ensure that a more systematic collection of investigations into suicides and homicides, in which domestic abuse is identified as a contributory factor, is made together with a robust accountability framework. This is to ensure that individual recommendations are acted upon, and that key themes across investigations are identified, to help target key policy changes needed to prevent future deaths.
The pandemic has created so many problems for our society, notwithstanding the area of domestic abuse. A number of domestic abuse charities and campaigners have reported a surge in calls to helplines and online services since the lockdown conditions were imposed. It is a sobering insight into the levels of abuse that people live with all the time. Coronavirus may exacerbate triggers, and lockdown may restrict access to support or escape. It may even curtail the measures some people take to keep their own violence under control.
Dame Vera Baird QC, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, told MPs at an evidence session last year that Counting Dead Women, a pioneering project that records the killing of women by men in the UK, had got to a total of 16 domestic abuse killings in three weeks between March and April of 2020. The usual record of 2 a week had increased to 5 a week, and she noted that that was the size of the crisis—a crisis that needs our fullest attention and our resolve to address.
In 2011, domestic homicide reviews were established on a statutory basis under Section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. These DHRs are carried out by community safety partnerships to ensure that lessons are learned when a person has been killed as a result of domestic abuse. They can bring a huge amount of value to local leadership, and the process brings together disparate parts of the statutory and non-statutory systems to consider how to prevent future deaths.
It was one of the most difficult and disturbing aspects of my role as a councillor when I had to take part in such a review following the death of one of my constituents. It was a devastating time for the community, and it left long-running consequences as we searched ourselves to see what more anyone could have done to prevent such a tragedy. In hard terms, what could be done now by agreeing these amendments is to establish a clear oversight and accountability mechanism led by the independent domestic abuse commissioner, which would help to drive effective implementation and share lessons nationally in the long as well as the short term.
My Lords, I am hugely encouraged by listening to all these debates around this Bill, because I know that every single one of us wants this Bill to be as good as it possibly can be. I will keep my comments brief.
In relation to Amendment 54, the issue of data is critical. We have to take time to remember that behind statistics are precious individuals—women and men. I support a duty on public authorities to notify the Home Office and the domestic abuse commissioner in cases of death where domestic abuse has been identified as a contributory factor.
In order to make good policy, we need good data. It is not enough that data are trustworthy; they must also be trusted, otherwise they will not be used. A key objective of the Bill is to raise awareness and understanding of domestic abuse and its impact on victims. That task can be effective only if the Home Office and commissioner are fully apprised of all reviews and investigations into deaths where domestic abuse is identified as a factor.
On Amendment 51, I wish to make a brief comment on communication between various bodies and the domestic abuse commissioner. We have already seen the fruits of the designate commissioner’s hard work. If this role is to be a success, it is essential to have join-up. Nicole Jacobs has been exemplary in her role already, and I am grateful for the many connections she has made and the strong relationships she has built, not least in the preparation of this Bill. But it is important to ensure that the list of public authorities that have a duty to co-operate with the commissioner is as extensive as possible on the face of legislation, so that we do not rely on relationship alone as we go forward.
My Lords, I rise to speak briefly in support of Amendments 51 and 54, to which I was happy to add my name. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Bertin, for introducing the amendment so well.
We heard in the group starting with Amendment 23 about the critical role of better information. I know it is a theme the Minister is acutely aware of, not least because she has departmental responsibility for it in the Home Office. To restate the obvious, and it really cannot be restated often enough, more joined-up, accurate, timely and informative data would enable Nicole Jacobs, on our behalf, to understand the past and the present better, a point made very well just now by the right reverend Prelate.
This point was also made very forcefully earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, on Amendment 23: the need not only to recognise but to try to predict future violent and abusive behaviour better, in order to prevent or mitigate injuries to abused partners and their children. What is the point of having a domestic abuse commissioner if we do not equip her with the right powers and authority, moral and statutory, to do her job as well as possible? As others have mentioned, these amendments have the active support of Nicole Jacobs and, if accepted, they will enable her, again on behalf of all of us, to understand the full gravity and texture of domestic abuse more clearly than we do today. We have to be more proactive and joined up. As was mentioned earlier, domestic homicide reviews are an improvement, but they are still not working as they should.
Amendment 54 will provide the commissioner and the Home Office with ready and immediate access to this vital data. Amendment 51 adds to the collation of vital data by drawing into the commissioner’s information hub all the investigations into domestic homicides by the five bodies named.
In summary, the commissioner has asked us not just on her behalf but on behalf of victims and their families to articulate what is behind her request to be given the additional access to key information that she judges she needs. This will enable her to do her job even more effectively and to do so right from the start. I hope I am right in anticipating a positive and supportive response to the commissioner and the Committee from the Minister.
My Lords, Amendment 189 is of a rather different type. We are proposing that to remove an authority added by regulations to the list through Clause 15(4)(a), the regulations achieving that removal should be the subject of an affirmative resolution. The Minister may say that as the Secretary of State has imposed—I am not sure whether that is the best term—an added authority under Clause 15(4)(a), it is hers to dispose of, but unless there has been an aberration, the public authority so added will be of significance. The Minister will of course know that it is not unusual for my noble friend Lord Paddick and me to take a look at every regulation-making power we find in legislation.
With regard to the other two amendments in this group, listening to and reading the names of the victims of domestic homicide is very moving. They are individuals who together make up significant data. We are particularly aware of this in the context of those who have died during the pandemic. My noble friend Lady Burt has already given the support of these Benches to Amendments 51 and 54. As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, has just mentioned, these are matters that the domestic abuse commissioner designate is calling for. Her shadow period in post has led her to call for a limited number of significant amendments to the Bill. It is not an impossibly large number, and it is not an impossible ask, so I think we should have a very good reason to reject what she has identified as necessary.
In a Bill which is going through your Lordships’ House concurrently, and on many previous occasions, the Minister, and other Ministers, have argued for public servants to have all the necessary tools in the toolkit. We have not always agreed on what those necessary tools are but, on this occasion, we certainly support these amendments.
My Lords, I support Amendments 51 and 54 and even the little tweak of Amendment 189, because these powers will clearly enhance the office of the domestic abuse commissioner, making sure that relevant public bodies actually co-operate and support the work. This reflects the sort of broad approach that should be taken by the whole public sector in trying to stamp out domestic abuse. The Independent Office for Police Conduct will be very important in identifying and dealing with police officers who are domestic abusers themselves. Those people have absolutely no place in policing, and I will revisit this with Amendment 53.
Amendment 54 ensures that the domestic abuse commissioner is informed of deaths where domestic abuse is a factor. This is vital information for the commissioner, and it is hard to see how she will be able to function if she does not have it. These amendments are crucial.
My Lords, I shall keep my comments brief as to why I think Amendment 51 and, in particular, Amendment 54 could be a worthwhile addition to the Bill. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if, in this instance, I talk just about women, because those are the statistics we have.
We know from the ONS that, on average, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales. We know from the UK’s femicide census that the number of women killed each year has gone largely unchanged in a decade. While the femicide census covers all women killed by men, its analysis of the data from 2009 to 2018 reveals disturbing trends relevant to this debate. In 62% of cases, the woman was killed at the hands of a current or ex-partner. In 43% of those cases, the victim had separated or taken steps to separate from the perpetrator. In 89% of those cases, the woman was killed within one year of that separation or attempted separation.
We also know that, for all those women who died over those 10 years, the most common method of killing —47%—was a sharp instrument; followed by strangulation, 27%; then by a blunt instrument, 16%; and then by the use of hitting, kicking or stamping, 15%. I say this, not to be gratuitous, but to show that there are patterns we could learn from. Given that the numbers have not changed in a decade, this suggests that the system is not working. An oversight mechanism that could give the commissioner access to all the data and the reports from the different bodies that already provide them would make it possible to look across the whole piece to identify and examine key themes and help drive implementation nationally and in the long term. The current commissioner designate wants to do the work, but she can only do it if she has the information. Surely, we do not want to find that, in another 10 years, there are still two women being killed every week in these supposedly “isolated” incidents.
My Lords, I am very glad to welcome Amendments 189 and 54. As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, has said, there are parallels with my earlier Amendment 23 about the effective use of data. I think he and the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt, Lady Bertin and Lady Wilcox, eloquently described the way in which information needs to be used by the commissioner. I was particularly taken with the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, about taking the lessons from domestic homicide reviews, and in relation to people with mental illness and the importance of the NHS linking to it.
On Amendment 51, it is clearly right that specified public bodies must have a duty to co-operate with the commissioner, and the organisations listed are all to be welcomed. It is very puzzling why the Independent Office for Police Conduct, HM Prison Service, the National Probation Service, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and the Chief Coroner are missing from the list in Clause 15. I hope we will get an explanation from Ministers as to why that is so. After all, as I said earlier, the Bill specifies in Clause 7(1)(b) that:
“The Commissioner must encourage good practice”
in the prevention, detection and prosecution of offences including domestic abuse. All the officeholders and organisations that have been excluded and which are part of this amendment have a contribution to make to that. I would have thought one would want them to have a duty to co-operate.
The same arguments apply to the Chief Coroner. The Chief Coroner has several important roles including providing support, leadership and guidance for coroners and the setting of national standards. They also have to monitor the system where recommendations from inquests are reported to the appropriate authorities to prevent further deaths. Surely this is applicable and relevant to domestic abuse fatalities, and I think it will be important for the commissioner to co-operate with the domestic abuse commissioner.
If there is a sensitivity about the Chief Coroner being covered by this clause because of his judicial role, at the very least I would have thought an amendment could be made to Section 36 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Currently, this specifies that:
“The Chief Coroner must give the Lord Chancellor a report for each calendar year”
“matters that the Chief Coroner wishes to bring to the attention of the Lord Chancellor”.
I would have thought it could be specified, at the least, that the Chief Coroner could report to the Secretary of State and the commissioner on matters the Chief Coroner wishes to bring to their attention.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate with such constructive comments. As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, has explained, Amendments 51 and 54 seek to address what may be a gap in the domestic abuse commissioner’s powers in relation to ensuring that lessons are learned from domestic homicide reviews. These are abhorrent crimes; of course, every death is a tragedy, as is the suicide of a domestic abuse victim. Domestic homicide reviews are a valuable mechanism to understand what lessons can be learned from these deaths to prevent further tragedies. We recognise that there is room for improvement in the way these reviews are conducted and the lessons applied.
Section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 provides for domestic homicide reviews to be undertaken by police forces in England and Wales, local authorities, providers of probation services and relevant NHS bodies. The accompanying guidance states that reviews must be published on community safety partnership websites following approval from the Home Office, unless there are exceptional circumstances not to do so. To that extent, the review findings will be available to the commissioner, but I recognise that there is a case for going further.
In relation to England, most of the bodies I have listed—probation service providers being the exception—are already subject to the duty to co-operate with the commissioner under Clause 15. It would thus be open to the commissioner to use her powers under that clause to achieve the outcome sought by Amendment 54. In addition, we are ready to review the current guidance, in consultation with those who undertake domestic homicide reviews, with a view to including a standing expectation that the findings of these reviews are shared with the commissioner.
With regard to the other reviews referred to in Amendment 54, the guidance on domestic homicide reviews is clear that such reviews must be considered when the death of a person aged 16 or over has, or appears to have, resulted from domestic abuse. As a result, it is possible that homicide may be subject to more than one review, albeit each with a different focus and purpose. As a consequence, without further consideration of the interplay between the various reviews referred to in Amendment 54, we are not yet persuaded that it is necessary to place a requirement on the relevant public authorities to copy the findings of the reviews listed in subsection (2) of the proposed new clause where the review relates to a domestic homicide. However, as I have indicated, as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, made his point about data being the key, if on further analysis there is a good case for such a requirement, the commissioner can use her Clause 15 powers to this end.
As to whether the list of specified public authorities in Clause 15 should be extended in the manner proposed in Amendment 51, this is again something we can consider further. Noble Lords will understand that we should fully consult the bodies in question before reaching a conclusion on this. We may not have sufficient time to complete such consultations ahead of Report but, in any event, Clause 15 contains a power to amend the list of specified public authorities by regulations.
On the broader point, I accept the concerns related to the collection of data on domestic homicides. That is why the Home Office has undertaken to create a central repository to hold all domestic homicide reviews. Once introduced, all historical reports will be collected to ensure that there is a central database on domestic homicides. It is also clear that the domestic homicides review process would benefit from the closer involvement of the domestic abuse commissioner. We intend to work with her to consider which parts of the review process would benefit from her involvement.
Finally, Amendment 189 would require regulations to remove a specified authority under Clause 15 to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. In our delegated powers memorandum we argued that the negative procedure affords an appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny, given the constraints on the regulation-making power, notably the fact that it cannot be used to remove a body that is listed in the clause on enactment. Regulations can remove a body from the list of specified public authorities only if that body had previously been added to the list by regulations. In its report on the Bill, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee raised no objection to the negative power.
In conclusion, I am sympathetic to Amendments 51 and 54, but they require more analysis and consultation before we reach a firm conclusion. Moreover, the powers of the commissioner in Clause 15(1), the duty for a specified public authority to co-operate in subsection (2) and the regulation-making power in subsection (4) offer a way forward without the need to amend the Bill. That said, I would be happy to update noble Lords ahead of Report on progress regarding our consideration of these issues. With that undertaking, I hope that the noble Baroness will be happy to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has participated in this short debate. Some of the statistics cited are absolutely fascinating, as are the insights that noble Lords are able to bring to a subject like this. I was interested to note that the Minister said that the commissioner already has the powers to require co-operation from all but one of the groups we are seeking to add, and yet the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee both alluded to the fact that the commissioner has requested these particular powers to be added. We will see whether we can get to the bottom of this.
I am heartened by the words of the Minister. She has said that she will update the House again before Report. That will be extremely helpful to the whole House and it will determine how we need to take things forward. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 51 withdrawn.
Clause 15 agreed.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 52. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment must make that clear in the debate.
52: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to co-operate: children awaiting NHS treatment
(1) The Commissioner must within 6 months after section 15 comes into force issue a request under that section to the NHS bodies in England mentioned in subsection (2) to co-operate with the Commissioner to secure that the objective set out in subsection (3) is met within 12 months after section 15 comes into force and continues to be met.(2) The bodies are—(a) every clinical commissioning group established under section 14D of the National Health Service Act 2006, and(b) every other NHS body in England (as defined in section 15(7)) whose co-operation the Commissioner thinks is necessary to secure that the objective set out in subsection (3) is met.(3) The objective is that where a child affected by domestic abuse has been referred for NHS care or treatment in the area (“Area A”) of a clinical commissioning group, and as a result of being so affected moves to the area (“Area B”) of another clinical commissioning group, the child receives that care or treatment no later than it would have been received in Area A.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would allow children who have had to move due to domestic abuse to receive any NHS treatment they had been referred for no later than if they had not moved.
My Lords, this is a very simple and straightforward amendment. It requires the commissioner to use the power under Section 15 of the Bill to help ensure that the children of victims are not further disadvantaged by losing their places on NHS waiting lists by virtue of having to move to escape the abuser. The commissioner must issue the request to every clinical commissioning group and every NHS body she deems necessary, within six months of the Bill coming into law, to co-operate to this effect, and to ensure that it is done within 12 months.
We know that waiting lists can vary from area to area, but the overall effect should be that no child waits longer than they would have in the original area to whose waiting list they were originally referred. On the pre-legislation consultation committee, we heard of children who never get the treatment that they need through having to move areas and losing their place for treatment on NHS waiting lists. This must no longer be allowed to happen. Why should these young victims be made to suffer this?
I hope that on this very simple amendment, the Minister will be able respond in a positive manner. I beg to move.
My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, but it is not simple. I live in Ludlow, 10 miles from the Welsh border. As far as I can see, this amendment applies only to England. There will be people who live in the north of England, close to the Scottish border. There will be people who seek sanctuary in different places. It is not always something you can control if you are on the move and fleeing. What happens to children who are moved from England to Wales or Scotland, or, in rare but not impossible cases, as I recall from the experiences of my constituents, people who flee back to Northern Ireland?
This looks simple and the aim is absolutely bang on. It must be the case that children do not suffer, but we do not have a national health service, do we? We call it the National Health Service, but it is not national; it is devolved. How do we get around the problem of children who have crossed to one of the devolved Administrations? That is the only point I wish to make on this amendment.
My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for moving this amendment, and it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I bring to this amendment my experience as a clinician some time ago in paediatrics—where, sadly, I admitted several abused children who had been caught in a complex cycle of domestic abuse—as well as my later clinical experience.
When children have experienced or witnessed abuse, some of them then move to live with kinship carers, or they move with the escaping parent, often to a different health provider area. They have to start all over again with schooling and health support. They may change GPs or move from one hospital referral list to another. There are waiting lists across the majority of specialty services required for many different types of support and intervention these children may need and for which they have been referred.
At first sight, some symptoms may not appear to be directly linked to the abuse, such as a heart murmur or other congenital problems. For others, the treatment they require may be directly linked to domestic abuse, perhaps as a result of neglect, harm or an illness that has worsened due to stress and fear. There is a wealth of evidence that people with a long-term illness or a disability are more likely to experience domestic abuse, and it seems no less likely that the same applies to children, given the high rate of family breakdown when the child has particular health and social care needs.
However, if this child goes to the back of the waiting list in the new area to which they move, they are being punished for having had to move. It is hard enough for the child to establish new relationships without also feeling that investigations or interventions that had been started at referral will all have to start over again. Many children in an abusive situation may struggle to express themselves or understand the options available to them. We must ensure that no child feels as though a choice is being made between their treatment and escaping abuse.
However, let us also consider the parent who is being abused: waiting for NHS treatment should never be a barrier to children or parents who desperately need to remove themselves from an abusive situation. This practical solution would make it easier for a victim of domestic abuse to leave their abuser and would ensure that no child needs to suffer any more than they have already as a consequence of the abuse.
However, like the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I want this principle to stretch across the whole of the UK and to be taken from one hospital waiting list to another, irrespective of where it is in the UK. This is a small practicality, and I am sure we could get the wording right by looking at it before Report. It will be beneficial for children who have experienced domestic abuse, will not increase NHS costs and will ensure that there are proper handovers from one clinical service to another.
My Lords, about four years ago, I was among a group of parliamentarians taking evidence from a number of survivors of domestic abuse and coercive control. One particularly haunting case has stayed with me: we heard from a woman who had to flee repeatedly, with her primary-aged young son, from repeated physical and mental abuse by her former partner. They were living in a small flat when her ex-partner broke down the door. He attacked and then raped her in front of her young son, who, when he tried to stop the attack, was thrown across the room and badly concussed.
The mother and son had to flee again to yet another local authority area to avoid being followed. I remember this extraordinary woman describing how, each time they moved, they had to find yet another GP and get fresh referrals to new and safe hospitals for treatment for them both. Each time, they had to explain the horrors they had faced and often went to the bottom of lists for new referrals to specialists, even though they had been receiving urgent services elsewhere. This young boy needed consistent long-term physical and mental health services as a matter of real urgency—not to have to relive the horror in each new town.
This is why I support my noble friend Lady Burt on Amendment 52, which seeks to protect waiting-list positions for children who are victims of domestic abuse. It is to the credit of this Government that the Bill recognises these children as victims in their own right. One in seven children and young people under 18 will have lived with domestic violence at some point in their childhood. The mental damage inflicted on them can be as serious as physical abuse and often much longer lasting.
We know that many survivors of domestic abuse and their children need to leave their local authority in order to be safe, and government guidance is clear that local connection rules should not apply when allocating housing in these cases. However, in health, children who move to a new area and are awaiting healthcare treatment can be required to rejoin waiting lists with a new CCG. This means that vulnerable children with complex physical and mental health needs can wait longer as a result of fleeing an abusive home. Parent victims of domestic abuse may also find themselves torn between staying in an area to ensure that their children can access treatment and fleeing violence, a choice which no parent should ever have to make.
There is a number of academic articles on the long-term consequences for children growing up in homes where there is domestic abuse, and these make chilling reading. In addition to the perhaps more obvious physical and mental health issues, many also develop long-term conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome. In 2006, UNICEF published its report, Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Abuse on Children. It says:
“The particular impact of domestic violence on children must be taken into account by all government agencies responding to violence in the home … Governments must specifically allocate resources to support children who are exposed to violence in the home”.
The excellent briefing from Hestia talks about the inconsistent, even haphazard, way clinical commissioning groups deal with their waiting lists. There is no guidance for them on how to handle those fleeing domestic abuse, stalking and coercive control, but there is NHS guidance for CCGs on how to help members of the Armed Forces and their families. The Armed Forces covenant ensures “fair access to treatment” and protects servicepeople’s waiting list position if they are redeployed and the family moves home to a new area. There is also guidance for schools in picking up any special educational needs of forces children, without the need to reassess them from the start. To the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, I say that this does not just work elsewhere in the United Kingdom, it works when families are moved abroad as well.
A similar principle could be applied to these children, recognising that domestic violence is not the same as simply moving home. The Bill recognises that these children are themselves victims of domestic abuse, and I ask the Minister to consider what action, such as the current NHS guidance used under the Armed Forces covenant, can be taken to ensure that change happens swiftly and that these children get the help they need wherever and whenever they are forced to move home.
Amendment 52, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, would provide that NHS trusts must co-operate and work with the domestic abuse commissioner to ensure that when a child has to relocate due to being affected by domestic abuse, they can still
“receive any NHS treatment they had been referred for no later than if they had not moved.”
This issue was raised in an amendment by the shadow Minister in the Commons debates on the Bill, and we agree with its objectives. Children who are forced to relocate because of domestic abuse ought to be prioritised to the extent set out in this amendment because, as the evidence shows, they are vulnerable victims in need of urgent support.
However, in order to receive support from health professionals, children need a diagnosis, and the reality is that, at the moment, people can wait for considerable periods of time—up to 18 months or more—between referral and the start of an assessment. If a child is forced to move to a different NHS trust or clinical commissioning group, they may have to repeat that wait all over again. The cost of the long-term effects of exposure to severe domestic abuse is estimated at between £500 million and £1.4 billion per year, including on education and health services. Providing resources to children in the way and in the circumstances proposed in this amendment could help to reduce that figure.
The Government’s response in the Commons was that access to the NHS is based on clinical priority and that a child’s need to access and receive health services will be assessed and services provided according to clinical need. However, the difficulty is that, in the case of children forced to relocate because of domestic abuse, if the forced move is from one area where the wait following referral can be 18 months to two years to another area where the wait following referral is for a similar period, a clinician might not see that child for a lengthy period of time, literally years, and any decisions made are not being made by clinicians. There should be a way to prioritise the needs of a child who has been relocated because of domestic abuse and has already been on a waiting list somewhere, and that is what this amendment seeks to do.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, has set out, the amendment would ensure that when a victim of domestic abuse was compelled to move to a different area with their children, the children would receive NHS care or treatment no later than they would have done if they had not moved. I certainly agree that it is important to recognise the impact of domesti