House of Lords
Monday 8 March 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.
Introduction: Lord Udny-Lister
Sir Edward Julian Udny-Lister, having been created Baron Udny-Lister, of Wandsworth in the London Borough of Wandsworth, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Marland and Lord Kakkar, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
The DWP continues to use available channels to promote pension credit and reach potential recipients, their families and friends. This includes using proactive press activity and social media posts to encourage older people to check whether they are eligible. The department is currently writing to over 11 million pensioners in Great Britain about the increase in their state pension from April. The accompanying leaflet highlights that an award of pension credit can provide access to other benefits, such as housing benefit or a free over-75 TV licence.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister, but does she recall that when we met her and the Pensions Minister last November they promised much more action on pension take-up? We still have nearly 1 million people who are entitled to pension credit but not claiming. They are now losing the TV licence as well. Please will the Minister meet again the Peers who met her before, with the BBC, Age UK and Independent Age, so that we can plan a new more dynamic and innovative take-up campaign?
I understand the noble Lord’s desire to move speedily on this and I share that desire. Following our engagement session in November, policy officials met the BBC and the director of policy then had a meeting on 17 December. This was followed by a working-level meeting with the DWP and BBC on 11 February. On 29 March, the Minister for Pensions and I will meet the BBC director-general. Of course we will meet Peers again. We are open to dialogue and, in early May, there will be a stakeholders’ meeting including people from other industries.
My Lords, it is clear that the numbers in pensioner poverty have risen. Benefit take-up rates by poor pensioners are low—37%, or 1 million, do not claim the credit. They are now being billed for a TV licence that they should not have to pay for and that they cannot afford, and they will get even poorer. The Government handed over policy on pensioners and the licence fee to the BBC, but they did not hand over their responsibility for the poorest pensioners. I put again the question asked by my noble friend: will the Minister give a backstop date by which there will be a meeting of the Peers with the voluntary bodies involved with the pensioners, the BBC and DWP, so that all the parties in the room can look at this challenge that we need to face? Secondly, will the Minister confirm that she will consider innovative changes to get that take-up rate increased, such as auto-enrolling the poorest pensioners?
I assure the noble Baroness that the Government are committed to action that helps to alleviate levels of pensioner poverty. I regret that I cannot confirm a backstop date, but I can confirm that we will meet Peers and that we will use all the tools available to us for innovation to try to help this group access pension credit.
My Lords, this is not a new phenomenon. While the Question specifically refers to pension credit, we know that successive Governments have not been able to achieve adequate take-up of benefits generally. Will my noble friend suggest to her colleagues that a fundamental review of how benefits are rolled out needs to take place, because public policy is defeated if there is not adequate take-up? Secondly, will she tell the House whether her department takes into account non-take-up amounts in the budget, so that there is a regular build-in of non-take-up by her department?
My Lords, I am delighted that the Government have included information about pension credit when writing to pensioners about their state pension increases. Will my noble friend tell the House whether that includes mention of the entitlement to all the other benefits that are passported to by pension credit? Will she confirm, if necessary in writing, whether my estimate of around a further £8,000 a year is potentially available to pensioners on pension credit—they may be getting very little of that benefit—in council tax, housing benefit and, indeed, £140 off their electricity bill in warm home discounts, which also suggests that the electricity companies may have some obligation to help on pension credit take-up?
On the last point that the noble Baroness raises, I am happy to go back and find out the information. I will write to her and place a copy of my letter in the Library. I emphasise that our meeting with stakeholders in early May will include energy companies. I will certainly take her idea back to the department.
Does the Minister believe that take-up campaigns fully involve local agencies, such as the charitable and voluntary sector and more particularly local government, which provide many essential services for older people? What plans are there for further involvement of such local agencies in future take-up campaigns?
I reiterate that we continue to make best use of all the available channels to make sure that we can reach those people and confirm to them their eligibility, particularly family and friends. I am not aware at the moment of anybody making a suggestion about local agencies, but through our stakeholder engagement we have certainly raised this point. I will take back the local government issue to the department.
Whether a person is eligible for pension credit and how much they can get is, as with other means-tested benefits, determined by their financial and personal circumstances, which can be complex. The noble Baroness’s point about technology and vulnerable and elderly pensioners is well made. We try to encourage stakeholders who represent this group, family and friends to do it on their behalf. They can also use the government telephone number.
My Lords, would it not make more sense for the Government to use state resources to support increasing the take-up of pension credit, rather than continuing the policy of the triple lock on state pensions, given that so many people over state pension age continue to work full time or have other incomes? Would taxpayer funds not be better spent promoting pension credit widely, which would increase state assistance for older people in financial need?
On International Women’s Day, we should note that women pensioners are more likely to be poor than men. A DWP official told the Scottish Social Security Committee that if all poor pensioners claimed pension credit, housing benefit and the council tax reduction, pensioner poverty would reduce to almost zero. The DWP take-up campaign last year has not worked. Peers keep asking Ministers to meet with us, together with charities, because we need more energy and creativity behind a campaign. I do not understand why the Minister keeps side-stepping that request. Can she explain that?
I am really not aware that I or any of my colleagues have side-stepped meeting with Peers to talk about creativity, and I do not agree with the noble Baroness on that point. There will be a meeting where people will have the opportunity to discuss and put forward their ideas. I am sure that the department will consider them carefully.
Covid-19: Care System
My Lords, throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the Government have worked closely with local authorities to help ensure that they continue to meet their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people in care, with particular regard to their education, health and well-being. Some £4.6 billion of funding has been made available to support councils, with a further £1.55 billion announced as part of the spending review.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer and for the good work that has been done. However, I am concerned that Barnardo’s declared a state of emergency in June last year as a result of a 44% increase in the number of children needing foster care referred to it. According to one investigation, more than 8,300 children were placed in unregulated, semi-independent accommodation last year. Many of those—more than one-third—were outside their local authority area. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that teenagers and older children in care are offered family-based provision, where they are more likely to thrive?
My Lords, the Government have announced that the use of unregulated accommodation for under-16s will be banned as of September this year. However, there are examples of those aged 16 and over for whom a semi-supported or independent living arrangement is the best placement. Local authorities make individual decisions but, for instance, many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who come to this country at age 16 may state a preference—which is taken into account—to be in semi-supported or independent accommodation.
My Lords, years ago the Government published a Green Paper in response to the worrying surge of mental health issues in children and young people and those in care. Today, a year after lockdown, that surge shows no sign of abating: quite the opposite. On this International Women’s Day, I draw attention to the very worrying rise of anorexia nervosa. Those who need help are often languishing on waiting lists. Has progress been made on establishing a new national waiting time and, if so, what is it?
My Lords, the Government are indeed concerned about the reported rise in eating disorders during the lockdown period. Only last Friday, we announced a further £79 million of funding to expand mental health support for children and young people. We have announced an early intervention service in 18 sites for those aged 16 to 25, meaning that people coming forward should be contacted within 48 hours and treated within two weeks.
My Lords, bearing in mind the number of young people in the care system who end up in the criminal justice system, can the Minister please tell the House whether the Government are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their education and training?
My Lords, the Government are indeed concerned about those who end up in the youth justice system and their education. The noble Lord will be aware of the provision in secure children’s homes, where young people are placed by the local authority or through the criminal justice system. He will be pleased to hear that when Ofsted recently inspected some of those homes, it commented positively about the provision of education for that cohort of vulnerable young people.
My Lords, the Children’s Commissioner reported in 2019 that teenagers in care are significantly more vulnerable than younger children to issues such as child sexual exploitation, gangs and trafficking. She also called for a ban on any child under the age of 18 being placed in an unregulated setting. Last week, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House expressed concern about older teenagers being left exposed in such settings. Teenagers in care are more likely to have complex needs and therefore require care rather than just support. Can the Minister say why unregulated accommodation is unregulated? Why do the Government believe that it can ever be appropriate for vulnerable young people to be placed in such accommodation?
My Lords, forgive me if I stated this incorrectly: it is going to be banned for those aged 16 and under but still used, when assessed as appropriate by the local authority, for those aged over 16. There will, however, be national minimum standards for that provision, which is currently unregulated, to ensure that the standard is appropriate. Those with complex needs were, as vulnerable children and young people, offered a school place throughout the pandemic. We are looking to increase Ofsted’s enforcement powers in relation to unregistered children’s homes.
My Lords, teenagers with learning disabilities in residential care homes have not had as much focus as older people. It was months before these homes received enough PPE, and testing was very slow. There was no comprehensive programme for their care and education. What measures are now in place to ensure equality of care and resources between younger people and older people in care homes?
My Lords, the children’s homes that young people are placed in have now been encouraged to register for the national portal for Covid testing, so they should have that available. As I said, those young people have been offered a school place during this time and have also had access to the remote educational provision of laptops, so that they can keep in touch with social workers.
My Lords, it is good that schools have returned today, but can HMG make certain that more—preferably outdoor—sports are part of the £6 billion which she mentioned is being provided for teenagers in the care system? This is vital, especially after the impact of Covid-19.
My Lords, it was indeed a wonderful sight this morning to come into work and see children walking down the road to go to school. I can assure noble Lords that all the activities outside of school, such as sport and PE, are back for our young people, and all those children who are looked after have an education plan which includes out-of-school setting sport and other enrichment activities.
Does the Minister recognise that teenagers in care need appropriate help at key stages of transition and yet, all too often, children and young people are experiencing barriers to learning, especially as we emerge from Covid? This is particularly true if they do not receive opportunities to participate in art, sport and cultural activities, thereby falling behind and becoming increasingly disaffected. Does my noble friend agree that we should be prioritising these activities so that young people in care can be provided with the necessary tools for as happy and healthy a lifestyle as possible?
I cannot but agree with my noble friend that the return to school enables all those activities, within certain PHE guidance, to be continued. Many of the specific outreach programmes, such as the music hubs, are weighted towards disadvantaged students. The Government have thought about transition points and are trying to avoid them; my noble friend will be aware of the Staying Put programme which allows 18-year-olds in foster care to stay where they are, and the foster care placements are funded to provide that ongoing provision. That has been a growing success year on year.
My Lords, the noble Baroness will agree that teenagers in unregulated care are very vulnerable, and proper placement, with regular contact and management of care provision, is crucial. Has the lockdown had any effect on this? She will also be aware of county lines gangs deliberately targeting young people in care, so is she satisfied that supervision and contact with the youngsters in such accommodation is sufficient in all cases?
My Lords, I am not able to give that kind of guarantee, but from the information I have, around seven in 10 of looked-after children were in regular touch—meaning every four weeks—with their social workers. As the noble Lord will be aware, there are specific programmes, including an investment of £70 million by the Home Office in violence reduction units. We are aware that all children are vulnerable, but that is why this particular cohort has always had a school place offered to them—that is their biggest protective factor.
My Lords, what are the Government doing to ensure that teenagers in the care system have supportive relationships during this time of restriction, especially if they are in unregulated accommodation? What is being done to ensure that they are staying in good health, by eating well and getting exercise, which are so vital for well-being? In other words, what is being done to ensure that these young people have a sense that someone actually cares for them?
My Lords, for young people in children’s homes and similar accommodation, keeping in touch with a social worker is important, but they are expected to attend school, because that continuity of relationship is very important. I am pleased to say the holiday activities funds, which are important to that cohort of children and young people, will be available in every local authority area now.
Covid-19: Working Mothers
The Government are sympathetic to the challenges working parents have faced during the pandemic and note the content of this excellent TUC report. The coronavirus job retention scheme was introduced to ensure that firms could keep millions of people in employment. Whether to use the CJRS remains a business decision for employers to take in consultation with their employees. It is not for the Government to decide whether an individual firm should furlough its staff.
It is right that we should celebrate International Women’s Day today and celebrate women’s achievements, although some might think we have gone back to the 1950s. Low pay, job insecurity and an unequal society predate the pandemic but are exacerbated by it. Seven out of 10 women being rejected for furlough is one example. The TUC report received 50,000 responses, covering mental health, fear of being selected for redundancy and paid leave for carers. The Government should be producing a gender impact assessment on all their policies but rarely do so. How will the Minister make sure that this happens in future?
The noble Baroness is right to point out a number of very shocking statistics in the TUC report. We continue to actively monitor the impact of Covid-19 on the labour market, particularly on women. All departments ensure that equality considerations are at the heart of their decision-making. This is key to the Government’s commitment to delivering equality of opportunity for all as well as to complying with legal requirements under the public sector equality duty. The Government Equality Office, based in the Cabinet Office, runs a number of targeted programmes for women to support returners to work and others with protected characteristics, including minority groups.
Does the Minister agree there is an urgent need for legislation to create a comprehensive scheme for working parents which, in addition to properly paid maternity and paternity leave, provides for shared paid leave and flexible work arrangements in relation to childcare, care for family members and family emergencies, requires employers to make reasonable adjustments for non-disabling, non-permanent conditions, such as menopause, and gives adequate protection against dismissal or detriment for seeking to enjoy these rights?
The noble Lord makes some interesting points. The shared parental leave and pay scheme already gives working families choice and flexibility on who cares for their children, at least in the first year. Following consultation, we are evaluating the views from over 3,000 parents, and our analysis will be published. There are protections against detriment, and parents on shared parental leave are protected against unfair dismissal. I note his comments about requiring legislation, and this will be part of the considerations in the consultation.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that unless findings are presented so the general public can look at them, you are not going to get the best out of them regarding pressure brought to bear so that they are fitted into any new legislation? Can the Minister give us any reassurance that whatever is found out when we look back at this experience will be brought forward in a way the public can access easily?
The noble Lord is right to draw attention to the sorts of lesson we ought to be able to focus on in this report, which had such an enormous response. It is personally frustrating that we do not seem to have moved far from the conclusion reached by the Women in Work Commission in 2004. Both reports call for greater flexibility in working practices, so the 2019 manifesto to encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default, unless employers have good reason not to do so, should be welcome. This adds to the rights of employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service, who can already ask for flexible working, which is one of the keys to encouraging women in the workplace.
My Lords, on this International Woman’s Day, there were an awful lot of exhausted-looking mums on my first school run back this morning—there were some dads, but it was mainly mums. We need to tackle the structural as well as the cultural barriers that mean that men are less likely to take parental leave or request flexible working. The Government are working with a range of employers; the Minister has spoken about employer-led initiatives, including the Build Back Better Council to drive economic recovery for all. Can my noble friend say how this will include helping working families to achieve a better balance?
My noble friend is right; having already mentioned the call in the manifesto for greater flexibility in working practices, the Build Back Better Council is bringing together a broad range of business leaders who will work with the Government to boost job creation generally. Investing in skills is the single most effective way of driving productivity. Employers know that if they fail to support working mothers, they lose a talented and experienced workforce. To ensure that equality continues to be central to all policy-making, an integrated, joined-up equality hub is being is being created in the Cabinet Office, at the very heart of government.
My Lords, the words “women”, “mothers” and “children” were not mentioned in the Budget. I suspect that the men making the decisions that affect women workers during lockdown have non-working wives at home and/or nannies. Will the Minister take steps to ensure fairness for self-employed women on maternity leave? If they take maternity leave, this cuts down the assessment of their average profits over three years, so that the 75,000 women who take maternity leave have lost a proportion. They have to be taken into account.
The Government pay careful and due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and advance equality of opportunity through our policies, including the Self-employment Income Support Scheme. We have made changes to that scheme, so that if a woman had a child in 2020 which meant that they did not return a 2020 tax return, they are now carved into, I believe, the fourth SEIS scheme. We continue to actively monitor the impact of the pandemic on all women and have taken action to avoid negative impacts. For example, we passed legislation ensuring that mothers are not financially disadvantaged when starting their maternity leave while on furlough.
My Lords, it is timely that we debate the TUC’s excellent report today, on International Women’s Day and as children return to school. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, said, mums are exhausted after weeks of balancing home-schooling and work. It is clear that women have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, taking on more childcare and seeing their mental health suffer. As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, in the Budget, these everywhere heroes did not even rate a mention. How will the Government ensure that working mums and women in general will share the benefits of the recovery? Do the Government have a plan?
We have laid out a number of schemes, and I believe that we have rolled out unprecedented levels of economic support to those who need it most, regardless of gender. That includes sectors that employ very large numbers of women, such as retail and hospitality. The Government are continually reviewing the effectiveness of the support, and departments carefully consider the impact of their decisions on those sharing protected characteristics. This is in line both with their legal obligations and with the Government’s strong commitment to promoting fairness. Of course, men are impacted too; indeed, the latest figures show a higher redundancy rate for men. That is why we are committed to ensuring a fair recovery for all.
My Lords, as noble Lords have detailed, statistics are unequally regressive. It is well known by the Government, and corroborated by the TUC, Mumsnet, a Muslim Women Connect report and surveys, that all women—and particularly those of minority heritage—are facing adverse challenges in the workforce and are being forced out or leaving the workforce and going into traditional roles. This is not only due to historical neglect and barriers to progress but often due to children, childcare responsibilities and discrimination compounded by the lockdown period. As we mark another year of commending women’s progress, what action will the Government commit to take in undertaking a gendered approach in their economic recovery plan to foster and promote opportunities for all women, regardless of barriers of race, colour, faith and abilities, and pledge to realise their fullest potential within their choice of career or family?
The noble Baroness raised a number of important issues. I spent a lot of the weekend trawling through the Mumsnet findings, which showed that school closures have made balancing work and childcare particularly challenging for all working mothers. As for support for Muslim women, the Government Equalities Office has awarded grants to a number of organisations in the private sector. Over 25 returner programmes have been launched, and those with protected characteristics—such as women and black and ethnic minorities—have benefited from these programmes.
Women in Elected Office
My Lords, we have more women MPs than ever before, making up 34% of the other place, and 35% of local councillors are women. But we must ensure that women have an equal voice in the decisions that affect them. The Government cannot mandate who political parties select as candidates, and it is for them to ensure that their selection processes are responsive to known barriers and lead the way in improving women’s representation—especially today, on International Women’s Day.
Does the Minister agree with me that the barriers which prevent women seeking elected office include abuse and discrimination, as well as elected institutions being seen as unfriendly to women? Will she commit to doing all she can to ensure that the sunset clause of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, allowing an all-women shortlist, is extended beyond 2030, and that Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 is implemented? This would go some way to ensuring that our elected institutions look like the people they represent.
My Lords, the Government keep all the uncommenced sections of the Equality Act under review, and in the run up to 2030, I am sure that there will be a review of whether to extend that. We all have a role to play when disagreement between elected representatives goes from disagreement to abuse and discrimination. We all have a role to speak out to defend our colleagues of whatever political persuasion.
My Lords, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we acknowledge that progress has been made in this area—but there is still much more to be done. Many women are put off coming forward by the tone of British politics and the hostility that women politicians receive. What more can be done to make national politics less aggressive and more inclusive?
My Lords, I can state only that during this pandemic, when we have used a remote Parliament, it seems that our tone of engagement here—and perhaps in the other place—has changed. But I reiterate that we all have a role to play, as elected or appointed representatives, when we see colleagues being abused or mistreated, whether it is in person or on Twitter. In a way, we must put aside our party-political allegiances and defend each other, otherwise women and others may not come forward for election.
My Lords, for 20 years I had the honour of representing Birmingham Edgbaston, which has an unbroken record of being represented by a woman MP since 1953. I was succeeded by the first woman Sikh MP, Preet Gill. Standing for elected office is a habit that should be encouraged as early as possible. Will the Minister therefore undertake to ensure that every school, including primary schools, is expected to have an elected school council?
My Lords, it has been excellent to see the development of school councils over recent years. It is not something that the Government would mandate but they do want to see it encouraged. Many schools and colleges run mock general elections, and it has been encouraging, in normal times, to see the number of schoolchildren who come to visit Parliament and are subsidised to do so.
Last Friday, the WLGA council recognised the outcomes of the cross-party working group on diversity in democracy that I set up as leader, in 2018. The council agreed to encourage all political parties to commit to proactive and co-ordinated activities to improve diversity in local government democracy. It further agreed a declaration by July 2021 from councils in Wales to become diverse councils, providing a public commitment to improve diversity and agree an action plan ahead of the 2022 local elections. This work by local government in Wales is an excellent example of proactively engaging women to hold elected office. Would the Minister recommend that the LGA take a similar approach in England? I have the full report, which I can send to the Minister.
My Lords, it is pleasing to note that nearly half of the members of the Senedd are women, and we support and encourage the LGA, which is leading a Be a Councillor campaign. During the pandemic, I think that even the parish council in Handforth in Cheshire has inadvertently done its role in encouraging many people to get involved in very local politics.
It is very well documented and has been said that one of the main issues for women when they eventually get to this place is the culture. As the Minister herself just said, challenging it is very important. I welcomed the Valuing Everyone training. I found it eye-opening and very challenging—quite rightly so. But could the Minister tell us what steps are being taken to encourage and enable those who have not yet attended to do so and, indeed, confirm whether it is a breach of the Code of Conduct to refuse to do so?
My Lords, I enjoy standing here at the Dispatch Box answering on behalf of the Government, but I am careful not to tread on the sovereignty of Parliament as it agrees its procedures here. I will say that I personally did the Valuing Everyone training and learned much through it.
I ask the Minister to go to the Prime Minister because, during his tenure, women have been overlooked greatly, including in the Cabinet. We should ask the Prime Minister to have an equal 50:50 Cabinet and for his party to have all-women shortlists—as we have asked for a number of times—as the other two main parties have.
My Lords, with the recent appointment of my noble friend Lord Frost, 22% of Cabinet Ministers are women. The previous Prime Minister, the right honourable Theresa May, holds the record as 40% of her appointments were women. I believe the current Prime Minister is on 32% and I hope that will be a rising trajectory.
I echo what other noble Lords have said about the climate of abuse being one of the main reasons why women do not come forward, particularly to local councillor positions. “I would not do it to my family” is a very common remark. Is there anything the Government can do to help to enable us to know what is going on and to see the abuse that is happening? I think that, if it were more visible, there would be more action against it.
My Lords, as I have mentioned, much of the abuse is online. The Government have committed to introducing the online harms Bill, which will provide the framework around which those platforms will be regulated. There is also a DCMS-led review conducted by the Law Commission looking at how we need to potentially update legislation to tackle abusive behaviours online. The Government have also committed to introducing a new electoral sanction against intimidation. But, as I say, I hope that the legislative framework around online harms will affect the culture of how people engage with one another online.
My Lords, shamefully a recent survey of MSPs revealed that 46% of women had received death threats, 29% threats of sexual violence and 75% threats to themselves, their family or staff. Women disproportionately are targeted and are the sole victims of threats of sexual violence. Social media, the source of much abuse, could deploy algorithms to reduce this content but does not. Last week we heard that operators are frustrating the efforts of police to prosecute racist abuse. Will the online harms Bill include provisions to deal with their failures and provide agents?
My Lords, the online harms Bill is designed to look at those platforms and ensure that they have a duty of care placed on them—that is the current proposal. However, the behaviours that the noble Lord outlined are mostly criminal and therefore can currently be dealt with. We know that many police forces have been more engaged in helping elected representatives, their families and their staff when they receive those kinds of threats.
My Lords, when first elected to local government, I was one of several women with school-age children. We were a tough bunch and needed to be. However, others were not coming on behind us. The times of the meetings, the lack of adequate financial recompense and the cost of child or adult care all militate against women taking part. It is time for positive discrimination to ensure that women have parity of representation at all levels. What are the Government doing to ensure that this happens?
My Lords, the Government recognise that having a diverse group of elected representatives in our country is important, but the political parties have a key role to play here to ensure that candidates who are selected are able to deal with the particular barriers that they face. There has been a particular emphasis on a fund called EnAble, which was announced to allow disabled people to stand. So institutions need to look at their working practices, as the other place has done over the last 10 years or so.
Arrangement of Business
Hong Kong: Democracy Movement
Private Notice Question
My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in a Statement on 1 March, the decision to charge 47 politicians and activists under the national security law is another deeply disturbing step. It demonstrates in the starkest way that the law is being used to stifle political dissent rather than restore security, which China claimed was the law’s intended purpose. Officials in Hong Kong raised our concerns with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 2 March, and with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government on 5 March.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The 47 which he has just referred to brings to more than 100 the arrests now made under the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian national security law, and all of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders are either in jail, in exile or on trial. Does he agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who said that this wave of mass arrests is
“a continuing and brutal danger to all who believe in free and open speech”,
and will he relay to the Foreign Secretary that this House wants sanctions imposed on those responsible, whether Magnitsky-style sanctions or a bespoke regime such as that developed for Myanmar, even before the military coup there? The time for words is over; the time is now surely for action.
My Lords, let me assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is very much aware of the strong sentiments and views of your Lordships’ House. I update my colleagues in the FCDO regularly on our debates and discussions, not just on this issue but on every issue. Specific to the noble Lord’s point about sanctions, he will of course know that I cannot comment on future designations. But we have taken specific steps on the situation in Hong Kong, as I am sure he will note, including the provision, which I believe was first proposed in your Lordships’ House, on the important issue of BNOs.
My Lords, British judges have continued to sit as non-permanent judges in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal as recently as January of this year, and the Chinese Government continue to point to them as proof that the Hong Kong legal system is fair and independent. In view of increasingly repressive legislation and arrests under it, what is Her Majesty’s Government’s present view of the appropriateness of our judges continuing to sit in that court?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness acknowledges, British judges have played an important role in supporting the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary over many years, and we hope that this can continue. However, as she also rightly points out—and I agree—the national security law now poses real questions for the rule of law in Hong Kong and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. It is therefore right that the Supreme Court continues to assess the situation in Hong Kong, and it is doing so in direct discussion with the Government.
Does the Minister agree with his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, when he says:
“This completely destroys the pledge of one-country, two-systems”?
Will the Government now consider offering a bespoke scheme for young human rights activists from Hong Kong who are not covered by the BNO scheme?
My Lords, irrespective of where we sit in your Lordships’ House, I believe we all acknowledge the immense insight and expertise of my noble friend Lord Patten on matters pertaining to Hong Kong. On the noble Baroness’s proposal, we are currently focused on the important issue of BNOs. That scheme has started and is running well. On the broader issue, we call out for the continued freedoms of all citizens in Hong Kong.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The Government have, in the past month, announced asset freezes and travel bans on 19 senior military and government figures in Myanmar, following the military coup earlier last month. Why are we not doing at least as much in response to the human rights and rule of law abuses by China in Hong Kong? Sanctions will and must come, and when they do, does my noble friend agree that it will not be a moment too early?
My Lords, on the issue of sanctions more generally, I am pleased that we have moved forward on the important issue of not just transferring the sanctions regimes after we left the European Union but the global human rights sanctions regimes that we have brought forward. Those have been focused on those who commit abuses of human rights being held to account—individuals, organisations and institutions. As I have already said, I cannot speculate on any future designation, but I share my noble and learned friend’s view that sanctions are an important tool.
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord himself has insights into the number of our key partners who have already indicated through international fora their support for the position of the United Kingdom and for the human rights situation of everyone in Hong Kong. They continue to be supportive of various schemes, including our current one around BNOs.
My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the last point made by the Minister. I have previously asked about a co-ordinated response and, from the comments of the Five Eyes leaders, our allies are determined to act. Can the Minister advise us on what action the United Kingdom is now taking to co-ordinate a Five Eyes alliance response to the latest arrests?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that our partnerships are important. As I have said, the Five Eyes partnership on issues of security is particularly key. On 18 November, we worked with our Five Eyes partners to issue a statement, and of course we are looking at the situation, in particular the recent announcements, although they are in draft and have not yet been published, about the decisions of the China national congress on the future legislative body in Hong Kong. We will be co-ordinating our response, including that with our key partners.
My Lords, what is the Minister’s assessment of the implications of national security education in Hong Kong schools for children as young as six? There are widespread concerns that this is indoctrination of Chinese communist propaganda at the heart of the curriculum. What steps have been or are being taken by Her Majesty’s Government to respond to these very serious concerns?
My Lords, the noble Baroness has raised another important point about education and teaching in the various institutions in Hong Kong. Of course, we take this very seriously and we continue to implore not only the Hong Kong special administrative region authority but also the Government of China themselves to ensure an inclusive educational curriculum for all in Hong Kong.
My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the plans announced last week to extend Beijing’s power of appointment to the Hong Kong parliament and be granted a veto over all of the candidates? This could prevent democracy activists standing in elections and has been described by the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, as
“the biggest step so far to obliterate Hong Kong’s freedoms and aspirations for greater democracy under the rule of law.”?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point to the recent announcement made by the National People’s Congress of China, to which I have already referred. Following the current session, we expect the deliberations and debates to finish around 11 March. The next step will be for the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to formally enact the changes at a subsequent meeting. While there has been media reporting, no specific details have yet been put forward. These proposals are in draft and, while no decisions are being taken, we are monitoring the situation closely.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answer to my noble friend Lady Mallalieu to her question in relation to our judges and their participation in the highest court in Hong Kong. Are the Government aware of the recent decision in the case of Jimmy Lai, where his refusal for bail went all the way to the highest court, and a decision was made that no law in Hong Kong has more meaning than the Chinese national security law which has been passed? The national security law is superior to any law, be it common law or international law, in Hong Kong. Should this not be the turning point in urging our judiciary to think again?
My Lords, the noble Baroness speaks with great insight about the law and she is right to point out the statements that were made in the appeal case on this issue, and indeed what we have seen on the bail hearings for the 47 individuals currently being held. As I have said, we are in direct discussions with the Supreme Court and the Government on the issue of judges in Hong Kong.
My Lords, while in complete agreement with the Government’s actions, I want to highlight the length of British involvement in Hong Kong and our close connections with its political and business leaders, many of whom were educated in this country. In order to fulfil our responsibilities and maintain our valuable friendship, has the time come to invite an official delegation from Hong Kong to this country both to express our concerns and to hear from them how they see the future and how we can establish a sensible relationship that benefits both sides going forward?
My Lords, I note the suggestion of the noble Lord, but from what we have seen of the National People’s Congress about future legislative control within Hong Kong, and indeed the actions that have been taken recently, I wonder how much leverage we would gain from such an interaction. However, I have noted carefully what the noble Lord has said and I will certainly consider it with colleagues in the FCDO.
My Lords, I declare my position as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, just referred to business leaders. My question notes the behaviour of a number of financial institutions that are either based in the UK or with very close links here that are essentially backing unconditionally the illegal behaviour of the Chinese Government, notably HSBC. What steps are the Government taking to consider the impact on our own financial stake in Hong Kong and the damage to their reputation?
My Lords, let me assure the noble Baroness that we are in close contact with a wide range of businesses in Hong Kong, but as I have said before, it is for businesses to make their own judgment calls. However, we are concerned that a number of recent decisions taken by the authorities in Hong Kong are further evidence of their determined campaign to stifle opposition and silence dissent. We will certainly continue to pursue an approach in Hong Kong that is rooted in our values and defends our rights, and we will continue to advise on and discuss with business the current serious situation in Hong Kong that we have been seeing in recent days.
My Lords, we have heard comparisons being made with Myanmar and other unhappy positions where people’s rights are being affected. However, surely the fact that China’s actions in Hong Kong are in clear contravention of the Sino-British joint declaration makes this particular case unique. How can we trust our future negotiations with a country which has actually broken its word? Does this not add to the demands made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for further action?
I agree entirely with the noble Lord’s first point. We continue to engage with China on a raft of different issues, including the environment and climate change. However, it is important that the statements of trust which are made by the Chinese authorities are ones that can stand scrutiny. From what we have seen in Hong Kong, that is not the case.
My Lords, those Hong Kongers who hold BNO status and are veterans of Her Majesty’s Hong Kong Military Service Corps have long pressed for grant of full British citizenship, which was given to a large number of their colleagues before 1997. Does the Minister agree that in view of the current developments, the time is right for their applications to be decided, having been under active consideration by the Government for over six years?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the focus of the noble and gallant Lord on this campaign, which he has again drawn to the attention of your Lordships’ House and the Government. As we look at BNO status and its application, I will certainly take back once again the long-standing position on this issue of the noble and gallant Lord and I will write to him.
Arrangement of Business
The Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. I ask all Members to respect social distancing.
We come to Report stage of the Domestic Abuse Bill. I will call Members to speak in the order listed. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are discouraged. Any Member wishing to ask such a question must email the clerk. The groupings are binding. A participant who wishes to press an amendment, other than the lead amendment in a group, to a Division must give notice in debate or by emailing the clerk. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the Question is put, they must make this clear when speaking on the group.
My Lords, given the large number of speakers and the large number of amendments we need to cover, I remind noble Lords of the rules of debate on Report as listed in the Companion, particularly at paragraph 8.138: arguments fully deployed in Committee should not be repeated at length on Report.
Domestic Abuse Bill
Report (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 21st and 28th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1: Definition of “domestic abuse”
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end insert—
“(f) unreasonable prevention or threat of prevention of dissolution of a religious Jewish marriage via a religious bill of divorce (a “get”);”Member’s explanatory statement
This specifically itemises one spouse unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage with a “get” as being within the scope of the Bill by bringing it under the definition of abusive behaviour.
My Lords, I will also speak to the other amendments in this group in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Palmer. I am grateful for their cross-party support.
These amendments relate to a particular form of abuse which has long been of concern to me as a British citizen of Jewish faith, whereby a spouse—usually the husband—unreasonably prevents the dissolution of his Jewish religious marriage and denies his wife the freedom to move on with her life. We seek to ensure that such behaviour is recognised as a defined form of abuse under this Bill, so that the wife can receive the support and help provided for victims.
I should stress that the majority of Jewish divorces proceed in accordance with religious laws, especially once the civil divorce settlement is agreed, but there are instances in which a husband deliberately refuses. Sometimes this is to extort money from the wife or her family; sometimes it is to wield power and control out of bitterness or spite; sometimes it is out of a vengeful desire to inflict long-term suffering on the ex-wife. The objective here is to support the victim, who is being treated as a chattel rather than as a person and denied her basic rights. There are cases where a woman has been civilly divorced from her husband for more than 20 years, yet the husband has consistently refused to engage with the religious authorities and to grant her a get. She is unable to remarry or to have further children. She is a prisoner in the marriage.
There is no intention here to undermine the role of the Jewish courts, which govern Jewish religious laws and which require the husband to voluntarily sign an official Jewish bill of divorce document, called a get. This can only be initiated by the husband in order to dissolve their Jewish marriage.
There is an entire legal framework governing all aspects of Jewish life, dating back to Biblical times. Although the present-day Jewish courts, known as batte din, and the judges, or dayanim, have been seeking ways to facilitate a process that can free the woman by means of persuasion or negotiation, this process is clearly open to abuse. The wife remains chained in the marriage and, if she wishes to stand by her faith, she cannot date or remarry another man unless she has been given the get. If she were to do so, any children would be considered illegitimate and would not be fully accepted under Jewish religious law.
We hope that these changes will assist rabbinic courts, so that fewer men will play these kinds of cruel games. Sadly, these have been used by men as leverage to control their ex-wives or demand a ransom for their freedom. We recognise that civil divorce is not a substitute for a get, without which, no matter how long the couple have been separated, they are still not considered religiously divorced. This legislation hopes to provide—and these amendments seek to achieve—a wake-up call for Jewish husbands, so that they recognise that it is socially unacceptable to refuse to religiously divorce their wives. Extortionate demands are not acceptable. It should be done in a timely way. It should be as inappropriate in this day and age for a Jewish man to refuse his wife a get as it is for a man to inappropriately fondle a woman or make lewd comments about her looks. We are seeking mindset change.
I hugely regret that this remains an issue for the rabbinic authorities, who have been unable sufficiently to overcome the problem that this causes for women. I understand and fully respect that these are difficult points of Torah, Talmudic and Mishnaic law, which I do not claim to have detailed legal knowledge of. I bow to the legislators in this country on Jewish matters, but I believe that we have a duty to ensure that these Jewish women are protected. They are entitled to the same protections as other victims of abuse.
Fantastic charities such as Jewish Women’s Aid and GETToutUK have been helpful, and many legal and other experts have pleaded for change. I hope that these amendments will further encourage recalcitrant husbands to free their former wives and that society will recognise their victimhood. Such behaviour is not only unreasonable and abusive; it is immoral. These amendments seek to establish that decent behaviour cannot encompass this type of abuse. Legislation cannot force a man to give a get. The religious courts want men voluntarily to attend and grant it. We are sensitive to concerns that a coerced get may be considered invalid, leaving the wife permanently held hostage in the unwanted marriage. We hope that this mindset change in the national community will be forthcoming as we move forward with this legislation.
The later amendments in this group, Amendments 74, 79 and 80, are designed to clarify that the Serious Crime Act 2015 definition of controlling or coercive behaviour covers a situation where a Jewish couple is separated or divorced under secular law and no longer cohabiting, but the religious marriage is not yet dissolved and the husband persistently refuses to give a get. The amendments seek to confirm the previous belief, not yet tested in court, that such a husband could be prosecuted for the crime of controlling or coercive behaviour and face criminal sanctions, even if the couple are no longer living together. However, I am pleased to tell the House that I will not need to move these amendments as Amendment 45 in a later group, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, has the support of the Minister and of my noble friends Lady Bertin and Lady Sanderson. That amendment would explicitly establish that post-separation abuse is covered by the 2015 Act, and that an unreasonable get refusal would potentially be a serious crime.
Since this issue was raised in Committee, I have been hugely grateful to my noble friends the Ministers who have continued to engage with us. I thank them and their departmental officials, and also the domestic abuse commissioner and her team, who have been so supportive and understanding of this situation. Indeed, perhaps I may put on record how grateful I am to be living in a country where issues of this nature, which affect a particular religion, can be engaged with so seriously and sensitively by our Government, the Civil Service and other officials.
The domestic abuse commissioner has stated that she welcomes these proposed amendments to the Bill and that she recognises that this would be a form of coercive behaviour on the grounds of psychological or economic abuse or coercion. She has requested and recommended that this issue be included in statutory guidance under the heading of “wider spiritual abuse”.
Since this issue was raised in Committee, we have listened carefully to the debate and we would like to thank again the domestic abuse commissioner and the Ministers. Although I stressed clearly that these amendments are designed to relate solely to Jewish religious divorces, with no intention to impact on any other religious groups, we understand that there were concerns of a read-across to other religions.
Having listened carefully to the debate in Committee, I have also been grateful for ministerial assurances that unreasonable and persistent refusal to give a wife a get is already covered by the broad definitions of abuse in the Bill, and I have received assurances that this will be explicitly mentioned in the statutory guidance. I would be grateful if my noble friend would confirm this and, on that basis, I would therefore accept that this issue need not be in the Bill and I do not intend to press the amendment to a vote. I beg to move Amendment 1.
My Lords, I have signed all the amendments in this group, which have been signed by noble Lords from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the Cross Benches—not very usual. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said so very clearly, all these amendments relate to a spouse—usually the husband—unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage.
My thanks go to Government Ministers for engaging with us and for seeking a UK legal solution to this medieval enigma. I would have preferred for these amendments, clear as they are, to be in the Bill. However, I have to accept, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for the moment, that the problem lies with current interpretations of the rules of Jewish marriage, and not with a parliamentary solution. There is no doubt that chained women and their children, after a civil divorce, are being unreasonably discriminated against for life. I accept that the Government have been sympathetic and have sought by practical means of guidance issued to help those affected, such as with Amendment 45, which I understand will be supported by the Government.
I am grateful for this assistance, but it is not enough. Even if we do not vote on these amendments today, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, I will continue to call for a more sympathetic approach from the Beth Din religious authorities. They rely on the Catch-22 absurdity that a Jewish divorce is not recognised if the recalcitrant husband is seen to be “coerced” into giving a get, resulting in the divorce not being recognised in Jewish law. Thus the agunah, or chained woman, is prohibited from having intimate relations with a man other than her husband and cannot remarry in an orthodox ceremony. In a really unacceptable denial of rights, the children will have severe restrictions placed upon them. Children should not suffer in this way, whatever the reason. This is unacceptable in 2021.
However, these same restrictions on coercion do not stop coercion of the wife being blackmailed, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, into giving a get, be it by payment of money, loss of family home or access to the children of the marriage. All the amendments in this group seek to provide a remedy and I welcome the moves in the Bill and in the guidance. However, what we do not want is to worsen the situation by creating the very perceived coercion which these despicable men rely on.
My Lords, I first came across the problem with which Amendment 1 deals when I was promoting the divorce Act in 1996 and I was assisted in great measure by my late friend Lord Jakobovits, who was then the Chief Rabbi.
The problem arises, as has been explained, for a person of the Jewish faith who is married and then decides to seek divorce. If she is female, she may get a decree of divorce in the English courts, but the Jewish law to which she feels bound requires that she cannot be divorced under that law without the agreement of her husband. Some husbands who have been divorced by the English courts decline to agree that the wife should be allowed to divorce under the Jewish law which they have both agreed to follow. In that situation, the husband is able to hold the wife into the marriage which she has made clear she wishes to leave.
The exercise of power by the husband is a controlling or coercive power within the meaning of Clause 1(3) of the Bill. Since they are both over the age of 16 and have been personally connected within the meaning of Clause 2(1)(a) of the Bill, it is clear that the husband is showing what under the Bill is described—and this will shortly become law—as domestic abuse towards the wife and therefore is subject to the remedies for her provided in the Bill. No distinct amendment is required in order to bring the wife into the situation where she can receive the help that the Bill will provide when it becomes an Act.
I agree that there is a problem which cannot be solved by us about a get having to be voluntary. The use of one of the remedies may be easier than another in that situation, but one thing I am sure of is that it does not do any good to alter the provisions in Clause 1 of the Bill by these amendments, at least in respect of everything except the Serious Crime Act—but I do not think it requires anything to be done in that place, either. Adding things such as “reasonable” and “unreasonable” and so on is a mistake and the proper thing to do is to leave Clause 1 as it is, because it undoubtedly carries with it the implication that the refusal of a get is domestic abuse.
My Lords, the Ministers involved have done a great service by listening to the Members who have put forward these amendments. I am pleased to support all the amendments in this group, to which I have put my name.
By accepting the need to stigmatise husbands who behave unreasonably in not giving a get, the Government are sending a signal to spiteful men and to fossilised religious authorities that compassion and secular standards have to prevail. I support the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, in all that he has said about this. The ability to refuse a religious divorce provides abusive husbands with power to control and to subvert conditions relating to the divorce, by, for example, demanding that the divorce settlement be repaid. The refusal can have a grievous effect on a woman’s entire life. She may be prevented from remarrying while still of childbearing age and there is concern for the status of children that she may have in future.
I am not defending the religious law underlying this, and it is not confined to Judaism. Nevertheless, it is accepted by some women here, and by millions around the world, but it is time for the secular law principles to prevail, all the more so since from this autumn, we will have no-fault divorce, a system which does not allow the unwilling spouse to defend a divorce at all—it must be accepted. The guidance, which I hope will contain these provisions, is a good example of how British law manages to encompass a diversity of views within its system. A man who refuses a get unreasonably in the future may even be found guilty of a criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, under the Serious Crime Act 2015, because this Bill clarifies that domestic abuse provisions apply to former couples, even after separation. Nevertheless, this provision would work more effectively as a threat than an actual imprisonment, because the get must be granted by the husband without direct coercion. The clarification in the statutory guidance which we hope for will mean that this is a good day for women and a step closer to equality in religious law.
My Lords, I speak personally in this debate. It is a privilege and a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, because I remember 1996. I was in the Chamber as a newly appointed Peer and remember very well Lord Jakobovits, who was quite a close friend.
I come from an orthodox Jewish family and I am an orthodox Jew. My grandfather was an orthodox rabbi. He taught me Hebrew and Aramaic from the age of six or seven, and his wife, my maternal grandmother, was very concerned about the problem of get. She used to try persuading the rabbinical authorities, including my grandfather, who was not a dayan—a judge—of the rightness of the cause. She remained, throughout her life, from the First World War onwards, an activist on this. My grandfather supported her with a smile, but he recognised that the Jewish courts were rather reluctant to move forward.
My mother travelled around the world trying to persuade the rabbis of the problem faced by the agunah. She spoke to American, Israeli and Australian rabbis—for example, the Chief Rabbi of Israel—and those in parts of Europe. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who will be speaking in this debate, can testify to how frightening my mother was. Unquestionably, many strictly orthodox rabbis appeared to be persuaded. She was always greeted with polite acquiescence, but nothing has happened, and one of the problems is that there are many different courts, so-called batte din, around the world. There is more than one in this country and they have been reluctant to work collectively in any way.
Another reason for being personally interested in this debate is that this is the week of my 48th wedding anniversary. My wife is not listening to what I am saying about divorce, by the way. Judaism differs from many other faiths because religious law is based on Talmud, which dates back to the Mishnah from the second century and the fifth century. It is a huge and remarkable compilation of discussions by the rabbis, who, of course, disagree with each other. Jews always disagree, and the Talmud is one of the few books of law of any kind which is almost entirely a matter of questions. One rabbi asks a question and another group of rabbis answers with a question. That is how the Talmud has built up. It has left Judaism almost unique in its religious format. It is not pyramidal—there is no one central authority. There is no supreme court in Judaism. I suspect that a supreme court would be in the world to come, not in this world. That has been a major problem for a few issues, particularly this issue of the chained woman.
It is embarrassing for someone such as myself to try persuading an English Parliament, to which I am absolutely committed, to help with Jewish law. I would also say that these instances of irreligious men hiding behind their religious cloak is much rarer than one might think, but none the less, there is this very important case for a few people where the future happiness of a woman, her freedom and, to some extent, the possibility of her having children is so important to her and to the community. It would at least prevent this shocking instance, so I am delighted that the Government are minded in some way to help us. I am very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, feels that the amendment to follow, to which I will listen with great care, will help to sort this matter out. I congratulate her on bringing forward this important matter, which affects a number of Jewish families.
My Lords, it is a privilege to speak to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. I am not Jewish, but as a woman of faith I appreciate the complexities detailed in the amendments. I am grateful to all organisations which have kept us fully briefed throughout the passage of this Bill. I salute them today, for many have spent a lifetime advocating for victims and survivors. As we approach the end, I have drawn on their experience, sentiments, and many of their expressions and words, to speak today, and I stand in support of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and other noble Lords who have spoken.
Violence and abuse often beget another generation of violence, not in all families, but some are so scathed by the pain, humiliation and loss of hope, respect and self-esteem, and mental and physical well-being, that this impacts all aspects of their lives. Women have achieved significant positions in society and throughout the globe, yet perpetrators— mostly men—have, as has been said, continued to feel entitlement to an inalienable right to batter and abuse their wives and partners, sometimes using religious references. Throughout the years, many in families and communities and, shockingly, lawmakers and law enforcers, have often been bystanders, designating the degradation of women as “domestic”. Women have tolerated millennia of violence and persecution sanctioned by family, society, and worst of all, the state, and sometimes even religion. This Bill is our pledge that we will uphold a society which liberates victims and survivors to live free of the fear of violence and abuse and, more importantly, institutionalise justice, freedom and liberty from aggressors and their assailants.
Laws, while a cornerstone, will not on their own aid the victims, the survivors, and their families to rebuild their lives. They will continue to require proper and adequate financial assistance and structural support to protect them until they are strong enough in transit from victim to survivor. Therefore, at the outset it is crucial that the gendered context of abuse is recognised on the face of the Bill. We live in an unequal world, where women are often at the margin or society, no matter what advances we have made in some aspects of our society. All victims of domestic abuse need support, but how we respond to men and women will inevitably be different, as has been stated, and therefore their experiences and needs require appropriate responses. To deny a gendered approach is to persist in repudiating the experiences of the vast majority of victims and survivors of violence and abuse, who are women in our country and throughout all parts of our world.
The Istanbul convention also requires states to take a gendered approach, taking on board women’s faiths when implementing laws and policies on domestic abuse. This Bill cannot deny the reality, thus ignoring well-established evidence that women escaping and recovering from violence and abuse will require women-only services.
May I say that I also wanted to speak to the group beginning with Amendment 2, but I mistakenly was unable to put my name down? But it was an honour to be present in the Chamber to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, as she powerfully addressed the Chamber and courageously stated her personal experience. I recognise the point that she has argued, and accept that there are certainly many complexities which become part of the continuous battle over children in separation and divorce. Regrettably, I am not in support of her clause. I worked with women’s NGOs and refuges—
Later in this Bill, we will be discussing the role of Cafcass and the family court in instructing contact with children, which calibrates comprehensive briefing, and must always ensure that the protection and well-being of children are at the forefront of any discussions. Although I recognise the important and useful role of Cafcass and the family court system, I suggest it is far from resilient in its effectiveness and application, due to insufficient understanding of the impact of violence and abuse.
I wish to address the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and her call for get refusal to be recognised as a form of domestic abuse within the statutory definition to ensure that Jewish women are protected and can access a DAPO on the grounds that a get is being withheld by an abuser.
I appreciate that this amendment specifically addresses get. I am in awe of the leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, in getting us to this point. If husbands who refuse wives religious divorce are likely to be prosecuted, it would be a godsend, not just for Jewish women, as it would give hope to other women of faith, including Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus—many of whom often discover, when there is a violent incident or separation, that their religious ceremonies are not recognised by the laws of our country. This blights the lives of countless women and families who have no recourse to the laws. The Register Our Marriage campaign and other leading women’s organisations welcome these proposed changes on get, as do I. It raises hope for others seeking state recognition for their plight in relation to religious ceremonies.
My Lords, I take part briefly in this debate because I was moved by what my noble friend Lady Altmann said in Committee. I go by one abiding conviction: we are all equal under the law and every subject of Her Majesty the Queen deserves the same consideration, the same protection and the same advancement as any other. As a great admirer of the Jewish community and what it has contributed to our national life over many centuries, I believe that what my noble friend is arguing for today is something that we should all recognise as a legitimate request. I was delighted to hear her comments that she believes that this will be covered, even though her own amendment will not be pressed to a Division.
I have tried to help a little in the work that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has done for Muslim women in the context of sharia law. Again, it is important that everyone in this country—every woman—has the same benefits as every other. The rule of law is what makes this a civilised country.
I sincerely hope that we will go forward from Report to see this important landmark Bill on the statute book very soon, and that it will indeed give true and equal protection to all those who suffer or who are in fear of domestic abuse. I am glad to support this amendment.
My Lords, I speak in support of this group of amendments, which I have signed. I associate myself with the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and my colleagues. I also thank the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the officials of the domestic abuse commissioner for their engagements on these amendments.
There is indeed progress. As my noble friends have said, there are some clear indications for some modest but significant improvements as outlined. Crucially, I hope we will hear some reassurance, building on what was said in Committee, that statutory guidance, as provided for in Clause 73, will take into account the measures proposed in the amendments.
It is also important to note that there is a host of additional elements throughout this Bill which support the plight of victims and will provide new opportunities for assistance and help, including DAPOs, the role of the domestic abuse commissioner and many others. There is no doubt that more will be done over time. At its very heart, this is a form of gender discrimination that we really cannot accept.
The Government have made a number of arguments as to why they could not go further or place these matters on the face of the Bill. Indeed, there is a reasonable point that the Government have not had enough time to tease through all the different implications for all faiths on this matter. There is a less persuasive point about drafting preferences.
There are two arguments, however, that are surely utterly wrong and incompatible with the underlying intentions behind this Bill: namely, that this is only domestic abuse in certain circumstances and that English law alone cannot solve this matter. A plainly gender-specific arrangement which places women where they have less rights and power in courts, which are exclusively run by the decisions of men, is wrong. This is not a situation we should accept, nor is it an arrangement we should settle for, even under any calculation of what religious freedoms should be accorded to faith communities in our country.
In Holland, the courts have been making rulings which have included fines and even imprisonment of husbands unwilling to deliver gets, with all the support of the rabbinate and the religious courts. In fact, under Dutch jurisprudence since 2002, which was strengthened in specific legislation just a couple of years ago—and which has been accessed by Jewish women across Europe, including, previously, some from the UK who, unfortunately, can no longer access it now—the secular courts are able to unchain Jewish women in these circumstances. The distinguished Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the head of the conference of European orthodox rabbis, supports this measure, as does rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, the former chief rabbi of Amsterdam, who now works in the orthodox courts in New York to bring reform and change. They support the Dutch judiciary’s proactive approach and recognise that, over 2,000 years, the role of the religious courts and the nature of Jewish communities in modern times is different. In response to the opposition of those who resist any notion that secular values or laws should ever interfere in how the Jewish law operates in liberal democracies. Rabbi Ralbag has powerfully said:
“Am I concerned that this is creating a precedent for interference? In some places, yes, I am. But I and every rabbi need to measure this against the pain and suffering that is being visited on Jewish women right now. And right now, this is what we can do to help”.
Regrettably, we are a long way from that here in the UK, but this is something that I think should inspire us that more can and must be done through this Bill—and indeed after it. I have been truly shocked and humbled over the issues presented by these amendments. I have been contacted by tens of women in this situation since I first spoke out. I have heard the most traumatic stories, including with people I knew, and in some cases people I have socialised with. How true it is that you never know what is going on, even with people you think you know well. The private torments, appalling behaviour, abuse and control—it has been utterly shocking. How important it is that there are excellent organisations such as the Jewish Women’s Aid and GETTout UK. I have been shocked at how some members of the legal profession have been providing the use of the get as a bargaining chip to ensure that women cannot receive what the law is clear and firm they are fully entitled to.
These issues go much deeper than the granting of the get and involve many cases that do not even touch the sides of the religious courts, where they are prepared to intervene. So while I am grateful to the Government for the progress that I hope the Minister will confirm during his speech, we cannot be satisfied with where we are. There is a huge duty on leaders in the Jewish community to face up to this dark side. While thus far it does not do what the Dutch have done, I hope the Bill will make them think and come round to proposing more legislative interventions themselves. I hope Jewish women will find comfort in the support that the Bill will give them in their struggles ahead, and for that we must be grateful.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to listen to and follow my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn and the other sponsors of these amendments.
I wish to make two brief points. The first is that whenever there is an unequivocal imbalance in power relations, that affects behaviour. The behaviour relayed to me in the context of these amendments particularly concerns women who remain in abusive relationships precisely because, in any definition of “negotiation”, the odds of getting out are stacked against them. One cannot go fairly into a separation negotiation if the other side has additional cards that are greater than the ones you possess. That imbalance affects ongoing behaviour; it will be affecting people’s behaviour now, as my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn rightly pointed out, in cases where perhaps no one will know anything at all other than the woman directly affected. There is a responsibility on the Government to listen acutely to the expertise being brought.
That brings me to my second point—and it is an apposite time to be making it in the context of Lord Speaker elections and people thinking about the size of the House—about the diversity of this place. There is no purpose in having an unelected Second Chamber if it does not represent the diversity of the communities out there. With these amendments and the Government’s arguments against them, we see a juxtaposition of the best and the not so good. Here we see a community effectively represented, by Members from across the range of the political spectrum knowledgably putting forward their expertise to the Government and to the House. But if we are to have a purpose here and carry out the precise role that an unelected Chamber needs to, we need to be far more inclusive of all communities across the country. The amendments, as clearly as any that I have ever seen, absolutely demonstrate the strengths of this House but also, in a sense—and I anticipate that this will be the Government’s response—part of its ongoing weaknesses, in that we are not inclusive enough of all communities.
I congratulate those who have brought forward their expertise from their community for the rest of us. With such cross-party wisdom, it would be foolish of us to ignore that expertise.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mann, who, as a non-Jew, has done, and continues to do, so much in the fight against anti-Semitism.
The well-informed debate in Committee was a good one and today’s debate has been just as important and impressive. I am delighted to confirm the assertions by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, about his mother, the late Ruth Winston-Fox; she was a force to be reckoned with but also a wonderfully warm, creative and successful campaigner. She clearly produced quite an impressive son, too.
The Bill, which is welcomed across the House and beyond, is about helping as many people who need it as possible. That is why I support my noble friend Lady Altmann’s amendments; as always, she made the case strongly and eloquently. I too am grateful to the Government, specifically on the Front Bench, my noble friends Lady Williams and Lord Wolfson. There can be no doubt in my mind that withholding a get is abusive behaviour. I also pay tribute to the inspiring work of Jewish Women’s Aid.
While it remains true that I am a member of the United Synagogue and part of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, I am qualified to speak for no one. However, I spoke to a close family member who happens to be going through a divorce and, as she said, if via this Bill only one woman, one agunah, were spared the indignity, the abuse, the embarrassment and the hurt and were enabled to rebuild her life then that would be a good result. How much more important it is if, by passing these focused and narrow amendments, we can help many more than just one agunah. My noble friend Lord Wolfson understands, he has empathy and he has the knowledge to help. I urge him to help those who need it.
My Lords, I speak to show support from these Benches for the amendments. They relate to Jewish law but there are many women who, for many reasons, are effectively prevented from leaving a failed marriage because their spouse unreasonably decides to prevent them moving on with their lives. Just one example might be where a wife is subject to abuse but the husband threatens to cut her off without a penny if she leaves the relationship. Whether or not the threat could be carried out is not the point if the threat is believed. In the case of the amendments, the husband has to consent to the divorce in Jewish law, and so the threat is real.
It is a privilege to be able to speak on this Bill on International Women’s Day. Any woman should be free to leave any relationship if she so chooses, and that includes relationships covered by these amendments. In 2021 there should be no chained women.
My Lords, Labour is happy to support this group of amendments but recognises the realities of abuse that different communities face. We must ensure that what is in the Bill works in practice for victims of all backgrounds in the UK.
The technical aspects of the amendments have been described powerfully and in detail by other noble Lords. When I came to review them in preparation for today, I was struck by the complexity of the situation surrounding victims caught in these particular circumstances due to religious faith, and the clarity with which these amendments have been written in order to ameliorate the effects and consequences of that faith while unlocking the rights of the woman in that situation and disallowing perpetrators from using the get negotiations as an abusive bargaining chip.
I pay tribute to the noble Lords who have brought forward these amendments for the experienced and knowledgeable way in which they have highlighted this problem, and I am glad of the support across all areas of the House for the amendments, on the grounds of domestic abuse by way of controlling and coercive behaviour. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, spoke of in her detailed opening speech, this is a defined form of abuse where the victim is treated as chattel. I was interested to hear my noble friend Lord Winston’s insights into the uniqueness of Judaism in not having one central authority, as well as my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn’s powerful and cogent arguments about what must be done, and the insight that he showed in his comment about not knowing what is actually going on with people who you think you know.
Inclusion in the Bill provides the opportunity to ensure that its provisions and protections are applicable to all. It specifically recognises the plight of these women by removing the shadow of abuse and control, restoring their right to exercise their faith through their ability to remarry and have children within their faith. The recognition would also offer these women other protections under the Act, once it is passed, if they are specifically included. It is in line with a key objective of the Bill: to raise awareness and understanding of domestic abuse and its impact on victims. Key is the ability of women to bring a case where they retain control of the process as the victims, rather than as a witness in a prosecution, having criminal sanctions as a civil party. It also clarifies that unreasonably preventing the obtaining of a get can include the imposition of unfair conditions, calibrated by reference to being substantially less favourable terms than the civil courts have ordered.
In conclusion, on International Women’s Day, this group highlights what so many noble Lords have said. The Bill needs to work for all victims and to do that it needs to grapple with the reality of how domestic abuse is experienced, in all the different ways that it is, by all of our communities across the UK—whatever their faith or ethnicity—by those living with it and trying to escape it.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Altmann for tabling these amendments. As a number of speakers have said, it is particularly apt that we are debating this on International Women’s Day. The quality of speeches in this debate is a testament to the strength of feeling across the House. Indeed, the standard of speeches has set a very high bar for the rest of Report.
I hope the House will forgive me if I depart from my prepared text to pick up two comments by my noble friend Lord Cormack. He first said that all were equal under the law. I respectfully agree entirely. Towards the end of his short but powerful contribution, he also said, if I took it down correctly, “The rule of law is what makes this a civilised country.” Again, I respectfully agree, and those two propositions guide not only the work of my department but my approach to this matter.
Amendments 1 and 3 would add a sixth limb to the list of behaviours in Clause 1(3) which count as abusive; namely, the unreasonable refusal to agree to the granting of a religious bill of divorce, or get, which is necessary to dissolve a Jewish religious marriage. The threat of such a refusal would also be caught by the amendment. It is undeniable that women who are refused a get by their husbands suffer long-lasting and significant consequences. A woman who has not received a get is regarded in the eyes of Jewish religious law as still married. She is therefore unable to remarry, but that is not the only disability which she suffers. Perhaps more importantly, if she does not remarry but has further children with another Jewish partner, those children will be severely restricted as a matter of Jewish law as to whom they are later able to marry.
The term applied in Jewish law to a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get, being an “agunah” or “chained”, is thus apt and tragic. I know that Jewish religious authorities are concerned about the problem but have not, so far, found a solution to it within Jewish religious law. That is a source of regret to many, but not something which English law alone can solve. While I accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, put it, that this issue goes back to medieval times and may go back further—it is certainly of long standing—it is a matter which ultimately, so far as Jewish law is concerned, the Jewish religious authorities themselves have to deal with. If the undoubted abilities of the mother of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, were insufficient to resolve this problem—I pass on congratulations from the Front Bench to him on his wedding anniversary—and she did not succeed with all her talents, one wonders where the solution will come from.
While English law cannot solve this problem, there is something which English law can and should deal with. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, reminded the House, this is not the first time English law has engaged itself in this area. He reminded the House of the significant work done by the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, of blessed memory, which led up to the legislation at the start of this century. English law can recognise that the refusal to grant a religious dissolution is all too often about the exertion of control by one spouse over the other—almost invariably, in the context of a get, by the husband over the wife—and, as such, may be considered a form of domestic abuse in certain circumstances
However, as my noble friend Lady Williams outlined in her response in Committee, we consider that this would sit better in the statutory guidance on domestic abuse provided for in Clause 73, rather than in the Bill. Again, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, identified, that is because the list of abusive behaviours included in the definition is purposefully drafted to be high level. That definition is therefore to be applied by the courts and other agencies on a case-by-case, fact-specific basis. Including specific circumstances in the Bill, such as a refusal to grant a get, may lead to calls for inclusion of other examples which would have two adverse consequences. First, as a matter of drafting, it would make the definition unwieldy. Secondly, we do not want to give the impression by including specific examples that there is a hierarchy of abuse. We are concerned to capture and prevent all forms of domestic abuse.
Before I provide further reassurance on the matter of statutory guidance, which a number of noble Lords have referred to, it would make sense to respond to Amendment 79 first. That amendment seeks to ensure that both the guidance I have just referred to and the statutory guidance issued under Section 77 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 include the unreasonable refusal to grant a get within their discussion of controlling or coercive behaviour. While we would not want to prescribe in statute what statutory guidance must contain, the House will have heard my own and my noble friend Lady Williams’ previous commitments during Committee and subsequent discussions to address this issue in the statutory guidance provided for in Clause 73.
I am pleased to have met with my noble friend Lady Altmann, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Palmer, recently to discuss this matter and share our progress on including the issue within the statutory guidance. Home Office officials have been working closely with my noble friend Lady Altmann, with Jewish Women’s Aid and others to shape the reference to this issue in the statutory guidance. I was particularly pleased to hear my noble friend refer to the work done by my department’s officials in this regard as well.
I am pleased that we have now included specific reference to refusal to grant a get within the draft guidance. We have also included a specific case study on get refusal, provided by Jewish Women’s Aid—to whom I pay tribute, as my noble friend Lord Polak did—to bring the issue to life for those reading that guidance. Let me say this clearly and unambiguously: there are, and no doubt will be, cases in which the refusal to give a get may be considered a form of domestic abuse. As my noble friend Lady Deech reminded the House, that is especially the case if refusal to grant a get is used as a method to undermine a financial settlement imposed by the civil court. As the noble Lord, Lord Mann, reminded the House, the issue here is that that power affects all the negotiations which surround the issue of separation.
Turning back to the statutory guidance, we have also added a new section on spiritual abuse, a particular form of abuse where perpetrators use the victim’s faith or other belief system to control them. We have worked closely in this regard with the Faith and Violence Against Women and Girls Coalition, drawing on its expertise. The new section is now comprehensive and takes up a few pages within the guidance.
I respectfully agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, that this applies to all faiths. Spiritual abuse is not faith specific, and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that the Government’s approach is to be absolutely inclusive of all communities within our country. We will continue to work closely with the experts as we develop the guidance, and we will be publishing an updated version of the draft guidance shortly after Royal Assent for a formal consultation, where there will be a further opportunity for interested parties to contribute. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, because what we are dealing with here are ultimately issues of power and control, I hope that that will enhance the nature and quality of the consultation.
I turn now to Amendment 74, which seeks to ensure that partners in a Jewish religious marriage which has not been dissolved can be considered within the definition of “intimate personal relationship” within the Serious Crime Act 2015, whether or not they continue to be married under civil law or live together. My noble friends will have seen that we intend to support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, which would remove the “living together” requirement contained within the controlling or coercive behaviour offence. Therefore, Amendment 74 is now unnecessary.
I turn finally to Amendment 80, which seeks to ensure that the unreasonable refusal to dissolve a religious marriage be regarded as a significant factor in the consideration of whether a person has suffered domestic abuse, whether a domestic abuse protection order should be issued, and the production by relevant local authorities of strategies for the provision of domestic abuse support, as required by Clause 55. My remarks just now about what is appropriate to include on the face of the Bill, and what to include in guidance, apply equally to the first limb of this amendment, on the determination of domestic abuse. On the second limb of the amendment, which refers to domestic abuse protection orders, it would not be appropriate for the Government to direct the judiciary as to what it must consider when deciding whether to grant such an order. That is a matter for the courts. The amendment is, in any event, unnecessary. The conditions which must be satisfied before a court can make a DAPO will already enable a court to make such an order if the behaviour amounts to abusive behaviour under Clause 1(3). On the final limb, relating to local authorities, we are not otherwise specifying what local authorities must take into account when drawing up their strategies, which will relate to general provision in the relevant local authority area. A specific reference is therefore unnecessary, but again I reassure my noble friend that this issue will be considered within the statutory guidance to which those local authorities will refer.
The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, referred to the approach in Holland, and said that the Jewish religious authorities ought to look at the approach there. It is not for the Government to identify what might or might not be an appropriate solution to this problem from the point of view of Jewish religious law. It is fair to say, as the noble Lord mentioned, that there are different answers or proposed answers to a very long-standing question. It is undeniable, as again he said, that there are causes which are traumatic indeed. The intent of this amendment has broad support across the House. We have heard a number of very powerful speeches supporting the proposals, and not only do the Liberal Democrat Benches support them but the Opposition do as well. I was a little worried for a moment about whether that support would be forthcoming, but it was. The Government are also in sympathy with the underlying aims of these amendments, and I was very pleased to hear from my noble friend that, in light of our discussions and the progress made on the statutory guidance, and the very clear—and I hope unambiguous—statements made from the Dispatch Box today, she will be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his remarks, and am truly humbled by the widespread support across the House for the sentiments and intent of these amendments. Every noble Lord who spoke supported this group of amendments. I hope that, on International Women’s Day, this will help promote a mindset change among Jewish men, or men of any faith, that the position of power they may find themselves in should not be exercised against the interests of their wives. I accept that the broad definitions do cover get refusal, and I appreciate my noble friend’s unambiguous statements to that effect. On the basis of the assurances that I have most gratefully received, I will not be moving my Amendments 3, 74, 79 and 80, and I thank my noble friend and the department for all their engagement. I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment 1.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 1, page 2, line 12, at end insert “, such as a parent’s behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent.”
My Lords, I rise to speak to the amendment tabled in my name and kindly supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, which I very much hope the Government will consider positively.
The reason I was sent to this House was my 19 years of work on family and children’s issues. Every day for nearly two decades I stepped through the wreckage of relationships destroyed by one parent poisoning the mind of a child against the other parent. Sometimes the abuser was a man, sometimes a woman. The gender was irrelevant. The horrific irony is that all parties—the abuser, the abused and the child—end up victims in their different ways, with lives wrecked and psychological damage beyond measure. For some the only way out is suicide. The Government say that there is no need to include an amendment as this form of abuse is already covered by implication in the Bill. But why should it be covered by implication and not explicitly?
In Clause 1(4) there is already detailed reference to “economic abuse”, by which one partner or spouse seeks to use money to coerce and control the other. How can economic abuse merit mention when the weaponising of children for the purpose of coercion and control by one parent over the other goes unmentioned? No one has put it better than the distinguished family court judge, His Honour Judge Stephen Wildblood QC, who said
“The problem with Parental Alienation is that it’s not about the child at all. It is about the adults … It’s using children as an instrument of that parent’s skewed emotions.”
In my book, there are few forms of domestic abuse more callous and damaging than that. Are we to draw the conclusion that money matters more than the lives and souls of the victims of domestic abuse—men, women and children? That surely cannot be the case.
This has nothing to do with creating a hierarchy of behaviours, as the Government fear. It is to ensure that through an Act of Parliament the issue of children as the victims of domestic abuse is not buried under a barrage of gender politics and misinformation. This debate needs to be broadened, not narrowed. There is a crying need for the justice system to be better equipped to distinguish between false and authentic accusations of alienation: between children who for good reason do not want to see one parent, and children who have been indoctrinated to say so. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, put it in our previous debate:
“A little more time might be spent teaching magistrates, district judges and circuit judges a little more about it”.—[Official Report, 25/1/21; col. 1403]
“It”, of course, is parental alienation.
There is the rub: the dreaded words “parental alienation”. I regret to say that rational debate around this term has been made well-nigh impossible by the controversy and emotion that it attracts. That is why my amendment, instead of using the term, in effect describes what my supporters and I mean by it—that is,
“a parent’s behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent.”
Seen in that light, I cannot believe that any reasonable person can object to our amendment.
Of course I have every sympathy for women who fear that men will use parental alienation as a defence against well-founded claims of abuse. The last thing that I want to do is to make life easier for an abusive and dishonest man—to the contrary: I believe that our amendment, far from disarming women victims, will strengthen their defences. But it is plain wrong to assert that so-called parental alienation is a stratagem used exclusively by men against women. For example, Judge Wildblood was reported as saying in 2019 in an alienation case that the children would suffer “significant and long-term” emotional damage, adding that
“the cause of that harm lies squarely with this mother”.
Alienation exists; to deny it would be to deny that the earth is round. More to the point, noble Lords have all seen the petition signed within a matter of weeks by over 1,400 fathers, mothers and grandparents, begging the Government to hear their voices and to include in the Bill a reference to this vile form of abuse. Every day I receive emails asking for that. If that is not persuasive enough, I have an abundance of proof in hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers and scholarly articles, to be found in the written evidence that I have circulated. This body of work comprehensively refutes the so-called expert advice submitted to the Ministry of Justice—advice that says on the one hand that there is no such thing as parental alienation and on the other that it benefits men only.
This is a Bill that, if it becomes law, will deeply determine the well-being and mental health of families across the land for years to come. It is therefore vital that we have complete clarity about its intent and reach. Can my noble friend the Minister agree that the family courts would benefit enormously from having parental alienation defined in law? Can she further agree that the use of children as a weapon in adult conflicts is a form of child abuse and that this matter should fly above all politics and issues of gender, since it equally affects men and women, their children and their wider families? Lastly, can she confirm that parental alienation will remain in the final version of the guidance to the Bill and that Cafcass—that is to say, the experts and not the ideologues—will play a central role in advising the committee that will examine the guidance? I beg to move.
My Lords, the amendments in this group seek once again to put parental alienation both in capitals and in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has again outlined her reasons for this. However, I do not hear any difference in objective from the amendments tabled in Committee. Those of us who oppose the amendments believe that adding parental alienation to the Bill is redundant because the alienating behaviours that she referred to are already caught in the definitions of coercive control. Further, the Government have agreed to add a phrase about alienating behaviours to the statutory guidance, which will sit alongside some of the other patterns of behaviour in domestic abuse.
As was mentioned in Committee, there are already problems in our family courts with one parent—often but absolutely not always the father of the child or children—alleging such behaviour. Unfortunately, as outlined in the Ministry of Justice’s harm panel report, fear of false allegations of parental alienation means that survivors and children of abusive and coercive relationships are suppressing evidence for fear that the charge of alienation will be made against them. Indeed, it is becoming such a worry in the family courts that even their solicitors are advising them against such evidence. There can be a history of abusive behaviour, especially coercive control, that is not presented formally to the family courts. This can include violence, restraining orders, criminal convictions and long-term patterns of such behaviour. Perpetrators of such fixated behaviour can often sound convincing and their ex-partners are often terrified of their behaviour, even in a court hearing.
In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and I went through some of the history of the development of parental alienation syndrome, which I will not repeat today, since we are now on Report, other than to say that there is evidence from the family courts of some abuse of a parental alienation defence. There are also some questions to be asked about the role of so-called experts in this area. Practice direction 25B, on the duties of an expert, the expert’s report and arrangements for an expert to attend court, is very clear on the requirements, including registration with a UK statutory body or having appropriate academic qualifications. The expert must also have completed the training. There are concerns from contested cases that some experts in this area might not have met this high bar, so I ask the Minister what checks there are to ensure that all expert witnesses meet practice direction 25B.
That is also why the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and my noble friend Lord Marks have tabled Amendment 44. We need to ensure that the courts are aware of the implications of a whole range of behaviours, especially in some of these egregious cases where there might have been some controlling, abusive, coercive and even alienating behaviour. The definition of coercive control—after many years of campaigning by organisations such as Women’s Aid and others, it is thankfully now a crime—is
“an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten”
the victim. That seems to fit very well the definition that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has been seeking. I hope that, on this basis, she will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I have supported this amendment on the basis that it shows what the general definitions reveal and include. I do not think that it will be necessary to pursue it, if we have a clear understanding that the sort of behaviour that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has described is covered by the phrase “controlling or coercive behaviour”.
There is another important definition that deals with children being used as weapons against their parents. It points out that activity towards a child may well be against the parent. Clause 1(5) says:
“For the purposes of this Act A’s behaviour may be behaviour ‘towards’ B despite the fact that it consists of conduct directed at another person (for example, B’s child).”
I am certain that there are a large number of cases in which one parent, using his or her relationship with the child, seeks to damage that child’s relationship with the other parent. It is a natural weaponising in a conflict, which is apt to come forward in this sort of fighting between parents. When they are antagonistic towards each other, they are apt to try to bring children to their side of the dispute, which strikes me as extremely dangerous.
I believe that the attempt to use one parent’s relationship to damage the children’s relationship with the other parent is an obnoxious type of controlling or coercive behaviour. I verily believe that, if allowed to persist until the end, you will get parental alienation, because the operation of trying to damage the child’s relationship with that parent ultimately succeeds. That is what alienation is: by that means, the child has been successfully cut off from the other parent’s company, love and support. As we show, the law as it stands includes that.
The reason for the amendment is to illustrate that that is so, simply to make it possible to have this debate on Report. There was a tremendous amount of debate in Committee suggesting that parental alienation should not be contemplated. Sadly, I fear that, if the conduct that we have described succeeds, it will continue to happen. The Bill already, properly, includes a definition that deals with the kind of behaviour that underlies attempts to alienate the other parent from their child.
I strongly believe that this broad definition should not be restricted. I felt that the addition of qualifications in other amendments restricted the wide definition presently in the Bill. That is important, because domestic abuse is a large area and the definition manages to encompass it with great success. Therefore, the reason for the amendment is to illustrate that the conduct in question is included in the definition. Once that is accepted, as I hope it will be, the amendment will not be unnecessary.
My Lords, as one would expect, that was a fascinating contribution. In some ways, it answers a lot of my questions. I am completely behind the purpose of this amendment. To my mind, as someone who is experienced but not expert, there is nothing about the phrases in Clause 1(3)(c) and Clause 1(3)(e) that naturally covers alienation behaviour. If one were to describe this in plain English, neither of those concepts would comfortably accommodate controlling behaviour which by its nature takes place remotely. Once you have got into the business of alienation, the two parents, typically, are not together. It is difficult to see what element of control or coercion can be exercised by alienation or how, in the context of domestic abuse, the wide phrasing of
“psychological, emotional or other abuse”
could certainly be construed as covering alienation. I hope that the Government will make it clear to me and the public in general, by what they say and do outside the Bill, that alienation absolutely is covered. But I need to see that in clear and unambiguous terms.
My Lords, my support for this amendment comes without the personal experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, or the legal expertise of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Like him, I hope that this amendment is unnecessary in reality. I cannot proceed without paying tribute to the noble Baroness for her unstinting efforts to ensure that alienation of children by one parent against another is accorded its proper place in discussion of the Bill. Her efforts and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, have been inspirational.
My concern throughout is for the protection of children and intervention in abusive situations at as early a stage as possible to ensure that their life chances are best fostered. It is well understood by psychologists that perpetrators of controlling and coercive behaviour will often try to separate their victim from outside contact—from friends, family, religious or social groups and even by preventing the means of communication necessary to seek help. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, perpetrators are often the most confident, plausible and convincing of people. Their victims, by comparison, are often confused, anxious and timid. Both may have deeper attachment issues.
Here we are concerned with a different direction of travel, namely conscripting the innocent as proxies to alienation as part of a contest with a partner. There are doubtless many versions of this, commonly using a weak or compliant adult proxy, but there is one type that warrants special attention and that is the deliberate enmeshing of the children of a relationship by one party as a tool or lever against the other. No other identifiable category so conveniently presents itself as a vehicle for this leverage; no other proxy is so trustingly vulnerable to exploitation or so readily damaged, both in the short and long terms, by such actions.
It may be a self-justification of the perpetrator that it is for the better protection of the children from the other partner, and it merely invites retaliation by precisely the same means. I have mentioned before the perils of a wholly adversarial and corrosive no-holds-barred approach to sorting out these domestic contests. The resident parent is clearly in a strong position to influence, and issues such as access to children and much else may hang on this. The very presence of children may, paradoxically, prevent the sort of clean break that some might wish for. Typically, the children are and remain the biological offspring of both partners. What they receive from ancestors may influence what they pass down to their own offspring in turn. The toxic adversarial circumstances of a relationship breakdown of adults seems capable of rendering them particular harm. Children, as minors, are entitled to the protection of their parents and, where that fails, to the protection of society. In my opinion, society is bound to take note of those impacts on them that might lead to perpetuation of abuse in future generations.
I have been surprised by the degree of antipathy that I have experienced following the parental alienation amendment in Committee. I did not think that this was in the least bit controversial, nor worthy of such sustained criticism. But I have been heartened by the comments of many others—from male and female viewpoints—and I thank them all for the trouble they have taken to write to me.
The first criticism is that parental alienation is not defined, but it is accepted that alienating activity does exist and has long been recognised, so I take it that the use of children as proxies in the process suffers, in this instance, from a liability to multiple interpretations.
Until recently, what we now know as domestic abuse was referred to as domestic violence, so the process of definition and refinement of terms is ongoing work in progress and affords no grounds for inaction. Absence of definition may be a factor for campaigning organisations and in legal circles, but my impression is that psychologists are very clear what it is, how to recognise it and how those involved can be helped. This ties in with the views of those who feel that psychology and judicial process should work more closely and effectively.
Secondly, I was accused of being an apologist for the work of Dr Gardner, who apparently first coined the phrase “parental alienation”. I believe that things have moved on in the last 40 years; the concept of parental alienation has been substantially refined and research by psychologists has moved on accordingly. I feel that that criticism was long ago superseded.
The third criticism is that parental alienation is simply part of a larger category of coercion and controlling activity, a point made in a briefing by the Victims’ Commissioner. However, the particular circumstances of deliberately enmeshing children as proxies in an adult battle are relatively self-contained. There are special parental and societal responsibilities towards, and particular vulnerabilities associated with, this category of young person. Parental alienation has the potential to cause great damage to children’s life chances, and it is identifiable and, in many instances, preventable. I do not see this as another manifestation in the generality of coercion and control, but something much more specific.
The final matter is that parental alienation is used as a tool for abusers to get back at their partners, with potentially significant outcomes. It is not for me to comment on the twists and turns of clever advocacy in the courts or on any perceived deficiency in the way decisions are reached in the best interests of the child. But I hope that in future, progress will be aided by the excellent work of Cafcass, whose resources might usefully be enhanced.
The Ministers were kind enough to arrange a meeting on this matter a few days ago and I thank them for that. I say again what I said then: the matter having now been raised, as was inevitable, doing nothing may be as detrimental as detractors suggest agreeing to the amendment would be. Inaction risks leaving this specific evil in limbo, the subject of further legal battles and causing yet more damage to young lives.
The Government need to act, if not in this Bill then in guidance, so that we identify and name this particular type of alienation for what it is—a form of domestic abuse—and that we furthermore signal that this is no longer a lever to be used in an adult conflict. I finish where I started by saying that I hope that, in the end, it will be found that this amendment is unnecessary.
My Lords, I agree with the Government’s decision to keep a broad definition of domestic abuse. I believe that the coercive nature of alienation is covered in the Bill, so I am afraid that I do not consider this amendment necessary. However, having not spoken on this issue in Committee, I would like to speak briefly to say that, although the amendment is not needed, the issue is real.
I understand the concerns about the way alienation is used by perpetrators, but that does not negate the incalculable harm that was done to my noble friend Lady Meyer and her family and to the many other parents, grandparents and children who have found themselves in a similar position. Her determination to bring a greater understanding and awareness is impressive. It took great courage to stand up in this Chamber and share what is ultimately a very private, very painful experience. That experience should not simply be dismissed and I welcome the fact that work is ongoing in this area, so that we may properly understand this complicated, often devastating problem.
My Lords, I speak against Amendment 2 as I did against the comparable amendment in Committee. I also express my opposition to the inclusion of alienating behaviour in the statutory guidance.
In Committee, having begun examining the issue of claims of parental alienation with an open mind, I focused particularly on the research and expert evidence, including a complete issue of the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law. Today, I will reflect on what came next. As I expected, having spoken in your Lordships’ House, written an accompanying op-ed and shared both outputs on social media, I got a significant response.
A lot of that response was emotional and angry. That did not surprise me, since we are talking about the most intimate of personal relationships, and I was more tolerant of aggressive tones than I would have been on other topics. But something struck me in many of the responses that I received. It was the use of the word “right”, as in “my right to see my children”, “parents’ rights”, “my right to direct my children’s future”. That crystalised some of the unease that I had felt in reading the academic claims backing a so-called syndrome of parental alienation—explicitly or implicitly, that was where they were coming from.
We live, of course, in what continues to be a patriarchy. Claims laid down for millennia that the father is the head of the household, that, as in ancient Rome—the classical world that some of our current Government seem to so admire—he had the right even to kill any member of it without the law offering any legal protection at all, are extremely hard to wipe away.
Under British law, until 1839 every father had the absolute right to keep control of his children should their mother leave. Even after 1839, only women who had the means to petition the Court of Chancery had a chance of keeping what we would now call custody, and then only if they could demonstrate an absolute moral clean sheet. The father’s morals were irrelevant. If your Lordships want to see how there is nothing new about coercive control, the life of Caroline Norton, whose brave, landmark campaigning won that change in the law, will demonstrate that. The global pervasiveness of this patriarchal ideology was referred to earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, said in opening this group that the Bill should not be caught up in gender politics. This issue—the entire Bill—is deeply, inevitably gendered, however much the Government might try to deny it. The struggle to get to the situation we are apparently in now, where the wellbeing of the child is predominant in decisions made about that child, was one long struggle against a society run by men in their own interests. But now we are faced with renewed efforts, a fightback for a “presumption of contact”—an assumption that if a child says they do not want to spend time with a parent, the other parent must be turning the child against them.
After entering the debate publicly in Committee, I was contacted by women who told me what presumption of contact and a fear of an accusation of parental alienation had done to them. I want to give them voice, so I will report one such case. I will call her Camilla, although that is not her name. Her account was of seven years of hellish coercive control and physical assault. She remained, at least in part, because the partner concerned told her that he would claim parental alienation if she left and did not allow wide access to the children. She was concerned about what would happen during that access.
After Camilla had left the relationship, she went through court case after court case as he claimed rights to parental access, while not paying the child maintenance that he could have afforded, and alleging that the children’s expressions of a desire not to spend time with him were a result of so-called parental alienation. Such offenders, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, can be extremely convincing in a public space and in contact with professionals.
For fear of not being believed, Camilla told her child that should anything bad happen when they were with their father, the child should not tell her, but should instead tell an official authority figure. So, that upper primary school age child declared, in front of many peers and school officials at a school gathering, that their father was physically abusing his new girlfriend in front of them. Then, happily, safeguarding apparatuses kicked in, as they should have. A few weeks later that child disclosed, again to people outside the family, that they had been sexually abused by an individual that the father had left them with. It is a horrendous account and one that I will long remember, and I think of the difficulties and pressures on that child.
This brings me to my final point, one that I do not think our debate in Committee really brought out. It is about the impact on a child of being told that they are deluded, or that their mother or father is leading them astray, or lying to them, and that their own impressions, feelings, desires and beliefs about not being with a parent are some kind of false consciousness. When a child says that they do not want contact, they need to be given—no doubt for their own well-being—the chance to explore that with trained professionals and given the time to explain, to discuss and to vent their feelings.
Above all, children need to be listened to. Imagine what it feels like to have stated very clearly to officialdom that you do not want to spend time with a parent, that you have seen them doing things that are illegal or vicious or clearly damaging to other human beings, then being forced by a court to spend time with them anyway.
I was talking about these issues with a friend of mine who is over the age of 80. I was fascinated when she explained how, not through the agency of the court but through community and social pressure, she had been forced to spend teenage weekend days with her father who had separated from her mother years before. She felt that her father did not really want to be there, and she certainly did not want to be there as a teenager, but she did not have agency or control. More than 60 years later those weekends clearly still had an impact on her. We know that agency and control of one’s own self, being listened to and believed, are crucial for well-being.
It would appear that this amendment is not going to be pushed to a Division, so on one level this is academic. That is narrowly true in terms of the progress of this Bill, but in terms of defending a hard-won, long-fought-for principle of children’s interests being paramount in the official approach to custody and access, against the weight of those millennia when the father’s control was absolute or near absolute, this is an important debate. Let us keep the well-being of children as the sole goal—a very recent goal that is both a moral right and one that will give us the healthiest possible society.
My Lords, that was a very powerful speech in favour of the aims of the amendment. At the end of the last debate in Committee when I spoke I said that I was somewhat ambivalent, although I totally supported what my noble friend Lady Meyer was seeking to do. That remains my position to a large degree, although I have come down—if it were a case of this amendment going to the vote, which I hope it will not—of probably being on the side of my noble friend. There is nothing more admirable in life than somebody who dedicates himself or herself to trying to ensure that others do not suffer as he or she has done. The noble Baroness’s campaign, over 20 years or more now, to ensure that other women and men should not have to tread the road she was obliged to tread is wholly admirable and commendable. There is nothing more wicked—and I chose my words with some care—than seeking to corrupt the mind of a child, particularly so that that child is turned against either their father or, more often, sadly, their birth mother.
We have devoted time recently to debating the importance of motherhood—there is nothing more important in the world. My noble friend Lady Meyer has clearly suffered greatly. She does not want others to suffer greatly in the same way, nor do any of us. It is a question of how we achieve her aim without making this Bill more difficult. As I listened to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and to my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, I thought that between them they had got it right. They both signed this amendment but they do not really want it to be necessary.
It is crucial that, when my noble friend the Minister comes to reply, she recognises the enormity of the problem to which my noble friend Lady Meyer has bravely drawn our attention—which cannot have been easy—and promises that we will have guidance to go with the Bill that will make it absolutely clear, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that anyone who indulges in the sort of behaviour indulged in by my noble friend’s former husband is falling foul of the law in a very real way. The corruption of children is beyond the pale in any civilised society, and this Bill—I refer to it again as a landmark Bill, which it is—needs to set the benchmark of how we regard these things for the next quarter of a century or more.
I hope my noble friend who will reply to this debate will be able to satisfy my other noble friend Lady Meyer that her concerns are truly understood and that those who put others through the ordeal which she was put through will be punished for it.
My Lords, I support this amendment in the name of noble Baroness, Lady Meyer. I thank her for all the work she has done to try to minimise the amount of involvement in the Bill necessary to make us all aware of this important issue. The amendment is designed to explicitly ensure that parental alienation is properly defined in the Bill. We have, of course, had indications today that it may be in statutory guidance, and that may be sufficient to ensure that the rights of children to see parents when it is appropriate to do so are adhered to. The amendment is not gender biased. It recognises that either parent, mother or father, may deliberately behave in such a way as to damage the relationship between a child and the other parent.
Parental Alienation UK has outlined a range of behaviours from one parent to another and I want to focus on one: when a parent makes false allegations of abuse, fitness to parent, substance abuse or mental health problems. I have worked with people with severe, enduring mental health problems where, when they have been severely ill and psychotic, it has been inappropriate for them to see their children. However, it is absolutely clear that, with modern treatment and access to supervised contact, most parents at some point should be able to see their children. That is not because of the rights of the parents. It is about the child’s right to know that the parent loves them and wants to see them, even if they are not in a position to look after them on a permanent basis. I believe that, as soon as is practicable, supervised access should be organised for children if they want to see the parent—the one they do not live with—if that parent is well enough to see them.
It is important that children know that both their parents want to stay in contact. If this is the case, the child is in a position, when they become an adult, to decide for themselves how much contact to maintain with each parent. I have heard other noble Lords oppose the amendment and I equally believe that no child should be made to see a parent without supervision if the court has decided that this would be inappropriate. I completely agree that we should recognise the vital role of Cafcass in this situation, but it is demeaning if the other parent of your child destroys letters, mementoes and gifts that you have sent, perhaps while you are too ill to see the child. These kinds of behaviour should be deliberately excluded and parents should be encouraged to try to work together through mediation. It should obviously be for the courts to decide and to determine whether parental alienation is occurring and to make decisions for access between a child and a parent, based always on the best interests of the child.
I believe that those who do not agree with this amendment have the same focus as I and others who are supporting it: to try to ensure that children grow up knowing that they have been loved, where this is so, and that they have been able, where it is safe to do so, to be in contact with both parents. I understand that the amendment may be better written within the statutory guidance and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s opinion on this matter.
My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Meyer for the work that she has done and, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said, the effort that she has put in to trying to make sure that the suffering that she has been through is not repeated or, should it be, that the victims have proper protection under the law.
I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could confirm what my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay asserted: that the deliberately broad definitions in the Bill, which I know my noble friend has explained to the House, are ground-breaking and deliberately so and provide the widest possible access to justice for victims by having broad definitions under which others can fall. Will “controlling or coercive behaviour” in Clause 1(3)(c),
“psychological, emotional or other abuse”
in Clause 1(3)(e), and “conduct directed” at their child in Clause 1(5) cover situations where a parent deliberately damages the relationship between their child and the other parent in order to alienate that child?
For example, a father of African origin wrote to me about his partner, who had been turning their four year-old child against him since they had decided to divorce. The child, previously loving, suddenly did not wish to spend time with him. He said: “My ex made several unfounded allegations of domestic abuse to stop me from seeing my child. Not a single allegation was proven, or true, but she constantly and unjustifiably obstructed my contact with my child. I recall that a year ago my child refused to have a bath that I had run for him. He said his mother told him, ‘Daddy puts witchcraft in the tub’.” He said that the alienation built up over time so that the child now refuses to see him. Can my noble friend confirm that that father would have protection under the Bill?
I have personal experience of other situations where parents were cut out from the lives of their children. The children were being manipulated or weaponised and the wider family cut off from grandchildren and nieces and nephews. I would never want a child to be forced to be with an abusive parent. However, the ex-partner of a friend of mine, who met a new partner from Australia and wanted to move there, decided to try to break the children away from their parent. In that instance, they were told: “Daddy does not love you, because you look like me and Daddy hates me. If you see Daddy, I will get sad. If you see Daddy, he will kidnap you, because he does not want me to be with you any more. If you say that you hate Daddy and you don’t want to see him, I will buy you a bike or take you on holiday.” This is something that has really happened. I hope that my noble friend will confirm that victims of such alienation will automatically be covered under the broad definitions, so that we will not need to press this amendment to a vote.
I hope that the controversy that seems to have been caused by the term “parental alienation”, which has driven the different wording of this amendment, can be settled by being tested in court. I fully agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, when she says that the child needs to be listened to and assessed by professionals. The key is for the courts to be aware that alienation such as in these examples may happen and, sadly, is not a rare occurrence. As my noble friend Lady Meyer said, we have had well over a thousand signatures in a short space of time from parents who themselves have suffered this form of abuse. If the courts are looking for this situation and can bring in experts to assess whether what the child is saying has been driven by fear instilled in them by the other parent unnecessarily, unreasonably, or deliberately to rupture the relationship with that parent, the justice system will be able to differentiate between the genuine cases, where a domestic abuser or abuser of children should not have unsupervised contact with their own child, and cases such as have been described.
Cases have been clearly identified in academic studies and evidence where parents who would otherwise be able to enjoy a relationship with their child are denied that opportunity and the child is denied access to that parent and their family. That can cause lifelong mental and emotional damage to the child and, indeed, to the parent. In some cases, the distress of being broken away from one’s children or grandchildren has caused suicide. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to confirm that this is indeed covered by the Bill and I look forward to hearing what she has to say.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. That speech was so well articulated, passionate and thought-provoking. I also echo and “Hear, hear” her comments on the exemplary work of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on this issue.
I have previously expressed concern that the Bill expands the definition of domestic abuse too widely because I worry that some categorisations of abuse, such as emotional and psychological, are too subjective and broad to guarantee justice. Every time I look, a new category of abuse has been added. We have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, that we now have “spiritual” abuse. Even the focus on domestic abuse is endangered as we stretch what constitutes “domestic” far wider than I think is helpful. My concern is that too much is being thrown at the Bill, meaning agencies and the police will not be able to see the wood for the trees.
I am not going off-topic in relation to this amendment, because I raised those caveats in relation to these issues in Committee. But I am now satisfied, having mulled it over and done a lot of research, that this is one area which the Bill can usefully cover. This abuse is well and truly domestic because it is about parental relationships. If ever there was a concrete example of abusive, coercive control, it has to be in using children against their parents. This form of alienation is a specific form of controlling behaviour that needs to be acknowledged somehow in legislation.
Any of us with any experience of toxic relationship break-ups will be more than aware that, in some instances, the understandable hurt which can lead to nastiness may spill over into weaponising children against one or other parent. When this becomes systematic alienation, it may be useful and necessary for the law to step in. What cannot be denied is that the consequences of being alienated from one’s own children are tragic and devastating, and that people in that situation have little recourse to justice. Think of the consequences: you often cannot see your child or children because of the alienation; your children are told the most heinous accusations against you; their views are poisoned against you.
At the very least, one might expect that supporters of the Bill would be sympathetic to children being coerced or alienated in this way. Instead, there has been an enormous deluge of organised lobbying against this amendment. That would be fine, but it has taken a particularly aggressive and hostile form, as hinted at by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. I find that worrying in and of itself. One of the main arguments used is that parental alienation is a tool used fraudulently by abusive fathers to gain access to their children. But this very accusation is, sadly, used to demonise those supporting this amendment, who are accused of being apologists for abusive fathers.
The emphasis of the amendment’s opponents is on the danger of false allegations of alienation. I too worry, as I have said throughout discussion on the Bill, about false allegations, especially in relation to such emotive, interpersonal matters. It is one reason why any allegations must not be automatically accepted as truth or fact; they need due process and to be sensitively interrogated. But that is true of all allegations, including those of domestic abuse. If this amendment can be misused for false allegations then the whole Bill can be misused and lead to more of them, but I do not think we should halt the Bill.
In two instances I have known of parental alienation, fathers were falsely accused of domestic abuse by the mothers before being totally cleared of any wrongdoing; the mothers admitted that, in their bitterness, they overegged what they had said. But this was after the fathers’ reputations were trashed, with the children told their father was, effectively, a wife-molesting monster. It caused great misery to be endured by the extended families, in both instances, and affected the well-being of the children. It was totally cruel and very hard to get over.
In such an instance, we are talking not about abusive fathers using this provision but about innocent people being accused—being victims, not abusers. Children are also victims here, because both parents should be equally open to their children, as various people have mentioned. There is something specific about this amendment that needs to be considered. If anything, I would argue we should accept it in whatever form. All allegations of any sort—of coercion, alienation or abuse—should be properly scrutinised in family courts by the criminal civil law, but we must show real care when we accept whoever’s version of events in matters of this nature.
Some scepticism has been shown, both in the lobbying I have received and in what has been said so far, towards the 35 years of clinical, legal and scientific evidence that have backed up this issue of parental alienation. We have already heard people question today what kind of experts these are and whether we can trust this kind of expertise. Yet throughout the Bill, to be frank, we have heard all sorts of evidence cited as fact. Even when it has been contested, it has largely been nodded through and experts have been quoted without anyone querying that. I worry that there is a certain one-sided nature to the hostility to this amendment, when it is reasonable and fair that it is brought into the law.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to say it is beyond argument that this is an important Bill. In my professional career, I dealt with many cases of child abuse. I practised at the criminal Bar, not the family Bar. Fortunately, sitting as a recorder, I did not have to try or sentence anyone convicted of child abuse.
It is important to get the legislation right. At my first reading, I thought the Bill was sufficiently comprehensive to deal with any wrongdoing. The steps in the ladder are clear: first, the relationship is set out in Clause 1(2); then we go on to the type of relationship, supplemented in subsections (3) and (4); then subsection (5) deals with indirect behaviour. The amendment’s supporters seek to redefine this, by adding words to give an example of behaviour which is reprehensible. I understand the aims of the proposers and their real concerns. We have listened to the passionate speeches made today. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has added his name to the amendment. From long experience, I would listen to his words, and the House always does with very great respect.
My fear is that this amendment is over-prescriptive. Putting this into the Bill might limit the generality of the encompassing nature of subsection (5). At the moment, I have serious doubts about whether the amendment is needed at all, as such particularising may limit the thrust of the subsection so far as other conduct is concerned. In these circumstances, having heard all the arguments, I would recommend its rejection by your Lordships.
My Lords, I commend my noble friend Lady Meyer on her courage and resilience in tabling this amendment again today. I first had the privilege of meeting her and hearing her story many years ago, and since then she has been a tireless campaigner on this issue despite, as we have seen both today and in Committee, often intense and personal challenge.
As we have heard, parental alienation is a devastating form of abuse that can extend for decades and have deeply traumatic effects on both the children and the excluded parent. There has, however, been strong resistance to recognising this as a form of abuse. Those who oppose it argue that abusive parents may themselves use the defence of parental alienation to continue their abuse. Surely, though, this is precisely why we have judges. We must have confidence in our courts and our police to make these judgments, just as they have to make countless others every day of the week.
The amendment seeks insert into the legislation the line
“such as a parent’s behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent”.
I am hopeful that the Government should be able to confirm that this is indeed included in the definition of coercion, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay and my noble friend Lady Meyer have requested. This addition would specifically draw attention to parental alienation while simultaneously giving the family courts a sound basis on which to better distinguish between genuine and false allegations of parental alienation. The amendment identifies parental alienation and protects those who are vulnerable from exploitation of the law.
The dynamics expressed in the amendment are important for a number of reasons. Alienation adversely affects the psychological development of a child in that it prevents a natural, healthy bond and relationship with a parent. A child needs to be nurtured and protected by its mother. Erica Komisar, a leading expert in attachment theory and the neuroscience of motherhood, highlights that children are at a higher risk of social, emotional and developmental issues when the essential presence of a mother is missing. But it is equally important that the child should have a relationship with their father. In a major study by the Journal of Applied Economics entitled The Impact of Income and Family Structure on Delinquency, it was found that when the interactions between a parent and a child diminish, such as in the case of parental alienation, the child perceives a decline in that parent’s benevolence. If the decline is sufficient, the child will accept its implications and move to feelings of abandonment, alienation and a lack of trust. Both the parent and the child are worse off.
Research from the Institute for Family Studies has also found that, controlling for race and parental income, boys raised without their father are much more likely to use drugs, engage in violent or criminal activity and drop out of school, while girls are more likely to engage in early sexual activity or have a child out of wedlock. The consequences of parental alienation can be deep and severe on the next generation.
There can be no doubt that judicial decisions in cases involving children must take account of all aspects of the family dynamic, including all types of abuse. There is a need for qualified professionals to assist the court in assessing whether there is abuse and, if so, its severity and how it should affect child/parent residence and contact arrangements. But the need for expertise in handling these delicate situations should not dissuade us from addressing this often hidden but deeply damaging form of abuse.
The Bill is strengthened if it captures all forms of domestic abuse and improves outcomes for those who are vulnerable to experiencing it, and we look to the Minister today to confirm that the concept of alienation is included within the definition of domestic abuse.
My Lords, I too wish to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for her two decades of campaigning after a horrific experience that most people would not be able to turn into such a positive contribution. I wish her, the co-signatories to the amendment and all Members of your Lordships’ House a happy International Women’s Day. It is a celebratory moment, as well as a moment of remembrance which was started over 100 years ago by radical working women.
I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for doing something that seems all too rare in our polarised and sometimes even toxic public discourse. She has listened. I did not participate in this part of the debate in Committee, but I was struck by her speech and by the contributions that were informed by the work of various women’s organisations, and survivor organisations in particular, about the contested or loaded nature of the term “parental alienation”. I am not a psychologist, a social worker or an expert on this topic, but I was moved by contributions from those who are, not least the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
It seems that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has indeed listened and has attempted in her reformulation to address behaviour rather than syndromes in a precise way that is more appropriate to legislation on difficult issues. I have no doubt that many abusive men will seek to use the term “alienation” as a stick with which to beat the surviving former partner, but, equally, I have no doubt that men and women are capable of weaponising their children during terrible relationship breakdown. I also have no doubt that this is a gendered world and a very unequal one, whether we like it or not, and that this inequality affects women, but also men and boys. It is a very vicious spiral indeed.
I turn now to the precise drafting of both the amendment and the Bill as it stands, because I have to agree with the co-signatory to the amendment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon. It is absolutely beyond doubt that, to quote the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, to use a child as a proxy in a dispute between parents, to weaponise or manipulate them in the way described, whether the perpetrator is male or female, is indisputably covered by the Bill as it is currently drafted.
I shall briefly explain why. First, Clause 1(3)(a) to (e) covers
“physical or sexual abuse … violent or threatening behaviour … controlling or coercive behaviour … economic abuse … psychological, emotional or other abuse.”
Secondly, and most crucially, this behaviour is covered in Clause 1(5) and is taken as being directed at the victim of domestic abuse even if it is directed at another person, for example the victim’s child. So if you combine the very explicit reference to behaviour that is directed at a child as a means of getting at the victim of domestic abuse with the earlier categories of controlling behaviour or psychological and emotional abuse in particular, there is no doubt in my mind that the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, about a parent’s behaviour being deliberately designed to damage the relationship and so on is covered. That being the case, I think it would be a mistake to add a “such as”. That term is always difficult and potentially dangerous as a statutory construction, for the reasons given by my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon.
In this particular context, my concern is that if we were to say, at the end of Clause 1(5), “such as deliberately designed to damage”, what about the situation where a child is threatened with violence rather than being manipulated for the purposes of destroying the relationship with the other child? That “such as” has not been included and we do not want to suggest in any sense a hierarchy of abuse or to emphasise the manipulation against another parent through, for example, threatening a child with violence. “If you leave me, I will poison your child against you” is a terrible threat, as are “If you leave me, I will beat up the children” or “If you leave me, I will cut off the children.” These are all terrible evils that in the Bill as currently drafted were intended to be and are addressed.
I hope that the Minister will agree with that construction. I think it is beyond doubt, but it is for her, obviously, as the Minister to say whether I am right. If she agrees with my construction that this is clearly covered, in particular by the use of Clause 1(5), I really hope that, as was indicated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, will feel able to withdraw this amendment, not because it depends on statutory guidance—that will no doubt be argued about and the detail will be got right; there is more room for all sorts of psychological debates about syndromes, et cetera, but that is not my place—but because the clause as drafted already covers the evil that the noble Baroness has spent so many years trying to address. If the Minister is of that view and puts it on the record, that will be a matter of Pepper v Hart and public record.
With that, I congratulate everyone who has spoken in this debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for listening and for her courage, and others who perhaps disagreed with her amendment but none the less understand that this is a terrible thing to do to a child. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that the child comes first from a human rights perspective. This is a terrible thing to do to a child, but it is also a heartbreaking thing to do to a former partner.
My Lords, I support the purpose of this amendment, and in doing so I also pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on this matter. She has been consistent in her determined efforts to ensure that the impact on children is not forgotten in debates on the Bill and that parental alienation is much better defined than is the case at present. I believe that the Bill would benefit from greater clarification.
It is vital that, among the many difficult and complex issues within the Bill, we consider the impact that parental behaviour can have on their children. Sadly, there are times when the actions of one parent can, over time, damage and diminish the child’s relationship with the other parent.
I decided to participate in this debate because I have witnessed this behaviour and the devastating impact it can have, through manipulation, the loss of self-esteem and confidence, the fear of even correcting a child for misbehaviour in case it results in reporting back to the other parent and, in doing so, perpetuating the abuse and alienation. This can obviously have lasting emotional and psychological effects on the parent but also, importantly, on the child.
As has been stated a number of times, these are complex and sensitive issues, and such instances must be handled with extreme care, bearing in mind the particular circumstances of each individual case. However, when a child is forced into choosing sides in an argument, when the emotional stability and authority of one parent is consistently undermined by the other, this puts the child or children in a potentially traumatic situation. This should be considered a form of abuse and included within the scope of the Bill.
The consequences can include insomnia, depression, lack of confidence as well as long-term difficulties in rebuilding relationships and in relationships with others. This amendment makes it clear that damaging the relationship between a child and a parent is abusive behaviour. By extension, this makes the Bill more thorough in the abuse it identifies and seeks to prevent. I acknowledge the wise advice from noble and learned Lords during this debate, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this discussion.
My Lords, I spoke in support of my noble friend Lady Meyer’s amendment in Committee and do so again. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Cormack, for I agreed with his every word.
I continue to read, and I continue to listen. The arguments have been well made, and again I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Meyer for her courage and resilience. It is clear to me that there are difficulties, opinions and alternative views—all that is legitimate. What is not legitimate is that the experiences and feelings of those who have suffered from alienation are either denied a voice or told that this does not happen. It plainly does.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, made a sensible point about the danger of creating a hierarchy of abuse, which I agree with. Can my noble friend the Minister assure me that the genuine and real cases of parental alienation—of which, sadly, there are many—must be heard? It could be a severe form of abuse if mention of parental alienation is not made within the guidance.
My Lords, I have no hesitation in supporting the aims of this amendment standing in the name of my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and others. I feel very strongly that we will listen—I certainly will—to what the Minister is going to say, because there are difficulties. I have listened to some of the opposition to the amendment, although there seems to be a very general agreement on the principles. It has now become a very wide-ranging Domestic Abuse Bill, so I really need to be satisfied that the aims and principles of what we are trying to do in this amendment, and what the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, is trying to do, will actually be satisfied without the amendment.
I believe that we should use the Bill to protect children and their victim mothers or fathers from psychological abusive and coercive control. During my 30 years as a Member of Parliament, I had many cases of parents, male and female, coming to see me and telling me in harrowing tones what was happening. They did not use the words “parental alienation”—it is a very Americanised term, which I personally do not like. But I listened to the some of the ways in which they talked, very simply—[Inaudible.]
My Lords, I understand and sympathise with those who have been the victims of a spouse or partner who has turned the children of their family against them—of course it takes place. It is an intensely sad situation, deeply unfair to the children as well as to the victim parent.
As a family judge, I tried a number of such cases, and I have to tell noble Lords that I very nearly wept in court when all efforts to change the children’s attitude had failed. I remain with a vivid recollection of some of those cases. But we need to recognise that there are two different situations: there are the children who witness the abuse of a parent against the other parent or have suffered from hearing it, and there are the children who suffer from the parent who is alienating them from the other parent. That is the background, and it is important that judges understand the context and can differentiate between the absent parent, who by his or her actions has forfeited the right to have a proper relationship with the children, and those who have been wrongly and unjustly deprived of such a relationship.
As I said in Committee, this requires judicial training. I have reflected since Committee on what the training should be and the extent to which it is already carried out, and I have done a little research. In my view, it is already very well provided by the Judicial College, which is chaired by a Court of Appeal judge. It is divided into different committees, and one such committee deals exclusively with family issues.
When I was a High Court judge, I was for several years the chairman of the family committee of the predecessor of the college. Newly appointed judges have mandatory training before they can try family cases, and there is regular, continuing training for family judges and magistrates.
My Lords, I am terribly sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Baroness, but I think she may be speaking to a later amendment, which we will reach in the ninth group. We are currently speaking to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on parental alienation.
Although I have the deepest sympathy for those who have suffered this unjust behaviour from the other spousal partner, I do not believe that the amendment, for all its good intentions, should be part of the Bill or should be set in primary legislation. It is telling the judges to do what they do already and will not change the situations on the ground. I do not believe the moral or psychological effect of primary legislation will have any effect on those who behave in such a way, nor help the sufferers of this serious, unfair behaviour. Consequently, I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, that the family courts would benefit. On the contrary, it would give them no support at all. I also disagree with the view of Cafcass and, for these reasons, I do not support the amendment.
My Lords, I was very distressed during Committee on the Bill at the way the House has become so polarised over this amendment. I believe a way can and should be found to do justice to both sides of the argument, for both raise real and serious concerns.
Clearly the term “parental alienation” has become controversial, coming as it does from the United States, where it has been so closely linked with gender politics, so I welcome the rewording of the amendment, where what we are dealing with is clearly defined.
Parental alienation was referred to in earlier debates as a “concept”, or even prefaced, as in the debate this afternoon, sadly, by the qualification “so-called”. But the concept arose on the basis of experience. The fact is that very many people, both men and women, have been alienated from their children as a result of the unacceptable behaviour of their partner or former partner. That it exists I have absolutely no doubt. Do the opponents of this amendment really doubt this?
At the same time, it is clear, particularly from the evidence of Women’s Aid, that some people use the concept of parental alienation to cover up child abuse. I am sure this happens, and I can believe that the greatest number of perpetrators are men.
So we are dealing with two realities, both of which have to be taken into account. In any given case, the evidence has to be heard and assessed and judgment given. This is what courts are for. This is what Cafcass is for. They know what it is and can recognise it for what it is. They have developed the child impact assessment framework to
“identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess the impact of different case factors on them, including parental alienation.”
At the same time, they will be well aware that there are cases where this is a cover for child abuse. This, too, they can recognise for what it is.
These are very difficult decisions. I would not like to have to make them myself. But the point is that there are people who are trained to make such decisions, and the courts use them. So I very much hope that the Government will accept this amendment, or at least, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, suggested, that the wording proposed in the amendment is clearly understood to be an example of coercion, and that this is set out equally clearly in statutory guidance.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the speech of my noble friend Lady Meyer and to those who support the amendment. I recognise their sincerity and good intentions and their desire to do the right thing for the victims of abuse and, above all, for children. But I am afraid I continue to have very serious concerns about the amendment and the ideas it seeks to introduce into the Bill. I do not think it is required to help those victims whom noble Lords wish to help. In fact, I fear that it will do the opposite; it will empower abusers. I am concerned that, despite the change in language, the amendment still rests on the idea of parental alienation and serves as a means of embedding that concept, so open to misuse as a means of covering up domestic abuse, in law. Parental alienation is a flawed model for addressing the experiences of the parents and children the amendment seeks to help.
I agree that parental behaviour
“deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent”,
in the words of the amendment, is unacceptable, but the concept of parental alienation is so open to misuse in a way that is deeply harmful to children who are victims of domestic violence that we must be extremely cautious. Its lack of rigorous scientific foundation or clear definition means that it does not in assist in addressing abuse. Rather, it has become a vehicle for minimising and evading legitimate allegations of domestic abuse and child abuse by suggesting that child victims, often suffering serious medical trauma and with valid reasons for resisting contact with the abusive parent, have been manipulated by the so-called alienating parent. In the United States, where the concept originated, when a parent claims alienation, courts are more than twice as likely to disbelieve evidence of any type of abuse and almost four times less likely to believe a protective parent’s claims of child abuse. The result is that children are often forced to live with their abuser and are at risk of serious harm, lifelong trauma and even death.
We do not need this imported into our law. I do not wish to diminish or ignore the experiences of those not feel that their relationships with their children have been undermined and damaged by a protective parent. They are victims too, and we must hear their voices. I am also open to being told that I am wrong, and I have sought additional clarification from experts on domestic abuse. They tell me that this behaviour is an example of coercive control. We already have the legal means to tackle it under existing laws on coercive control. The recognition of children as victims in the Bill should strengthen that, as should the very welcome government amendment on post-separation abuse.
A clause to tackle this behaviour already exists, and there can be no case for us introducing any concepts or amendments which come with so many proven risks to children attached. However, there is a strong case, as I shall argue later in my speech on my amendment on training, for the training of judges. Children must have contact with both parents, but not at any price. We cannot dismiss a child’s voice when they disclose abuse.
Before I close, I believe it is important to make one final point. This is not aimed at anyone in your Lordships’ House, but it is necessary as a matter of basic principle. I think it serves to confirm some of what I have said about the dangers of the concept of parental alienation that the behaviour of some of its proponents is aggressive, bullying and abusive. They attempt to silence anyone who disagrees with them. People who have dared challenge parental alienation have faced vitriolic attacks and regular attempts to undermine their career and even see them sacked from their job. Respected experts have been called fraudulent, corrupt, lying and biased. People who have devoted their career to tackling abuse have been described as child abusers.
We cannot ignore those attacks. Since we began to debate the Bill, they have increased. One person who has faced a great deal of harassment tells me that it has significantly escalated and continued on an almost daily basis since the Bill received its Second Reading in your Lordships’ House.
I have spent most of my career working in foreign policy. I have never witnessed behaviour such as this until I became involved in these debates. Many supporters of parental alienation outside this House seek to use abusive behaviour to silence their critics and, in doing so, they serve only to remind us why we have such serious concerns about this concept and why it is imperative that we do not allow it into our laws.
My Lords, I thank the House for its indulgence. I apologise, because my internet connection collapsed completely during the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and I missed a great deal of what she said.
Parental divorce or separation is the second most prevalent adverse event during childhood. There is plenty of evidence that most children who experience parental divorce do not develop long-lasting problems. Many studies show that children are remarkably resilient. Long-term studies of children in Romania after Ceausescu’s regime, for example, showed that, provided they were adopted into loving, caring families, they returned to an almost normal existence.
Even so, there are certain times when biology conflicts with resilience—for example, when children are first socialising, with puberty, with adolescence and with certain mental conditions. Nor can we ignore good follow-up studies of all ages which report problems. They confirm that, compared with children who remained in two-parent families, young people who experience parental divorce are at increased risk of a whole host of difficulties. These include depression later in life and may involve poor social values and behaviour, lack of empathy and various psychopathological disorders, substance abuse and academic underachievement.
These children and adolescents are much more vulnerable to various pressures, particularly when one divorced or separated parent deliberately attempts to undermine his or her offspring’s relationship with the other parent. This may not always be deliberate and, when it is, it may be difficult to prove in court. There are examples where this is clear cut, with substantial evidence of this kind of damaging behaviour.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, firmly said in her speech, this amendment is unquestionably about child abuse. Research clearly shows that this can have long-term effects on children as they become adults. Moreover, it is possible—although this is more difficult to show in long-term studies—that traits which a child may develop in consequence of this kind of behaviour may be passed on. The child’s own offspring—the grandchildren of the fractured experience—may be affected. There is, incidentally, increasing evidence of a biological mechanism for such inherited behaviour. There is a significant indication that this may be epigenetic—a chemical alteration which influences the way in which the genes function. Evidence is growing that it may be true for one particular set of conditions which are of growing interest in human development.
Autism spectrum disorder—so-called ASD—is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders in which multiple genetic and epigenetic factors definitely play a role. As long ago as 1991, the famous expert, Professor Rutter, pointed out mistaken stereotypes in psychiatric and behavioural genetics. He was decrying the idea that strong effects might mean that environmental influences must be unimportant. In America, Judith Kroll has pointed out that parental behaviour is critical in enhancing or reducing the negative effects on autistic children. This is often a particular problem with one or other, or both parents. Her study is a useful marker to consider.
I want briefly to mention Karey O’Hara’s remarkable follow-up study from Arizona, looking at 240 children over six to eight years. The study showed very clearly quite subtle changes in these children’s relationship with one or the other parent. Mental health problems, drug abuse and risky sexual behaviour were all common. She and her colleagues concluded that children in families with high levels of post-divorce conflict, which could certainly include the sorts of behaviour to which the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, referred, are an appropriate target group for preventive interventions. We know that these interventions work; they must surely be better than recourse to law. None the less, it is an important kind of child abuse because it can occasionally be hidden and difficult to see.
This is a vital discussion on an important amendment, and I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has seen fit to introduce it on Report.
My Lords, in Committee, we heard the very moving testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, whose children were abducted by their father and kept in Germany with very little contact between them and their mother. It appears that, during that separation, the father turned the children against her. It is a shocking and upsetting case of parental abduction. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her campaigning work on parental abduction. A friend of mine in Oslo, who has shared custody, is having the relationship between him and his son poisoned by the mother.
As my noble friend Lady Brinton said, such behaviour is already covered by Clause 1(3)(c) and (e) and subsection (5) of the Bill as it stands in a way that economic abuse is not. Parental alienation amounts to controlling or coercive behaviour and psychological or emotional abuse. It includes, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has said, conduct directed at another person—for example, the victim’s child.
As the noble Baroness said in Committee, using children as weapons in a war by one parent against the other can equally apply to mothers seeking to alienate fathers as to fathers seeking to alienate mothers. It can inflict damage on both parent and child. I fundamentally disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that this a gendered issue.
In Committee, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who has a wealth of experience, said that it is important to leave discretion over contact and parental alienation to the judges. She reinforced that this afternoon. As she said, there are two types of case: one where a child witnesses abuse and turns against the perpetrator, and the other, where there is a malicious attempt to turn a child against a parent. Abusive behaviour turns children against abusers.
As with many areas of domestic abuse, the issues here are complex, and there are both advantages and disadvantages to the noble Baroness’s amendment. In Committee, my noble friend Lady Brinton quoted from a Ministry of Justice report which cites:
“Fears of false allegations of parental alienation are clearly a barrier to victims of abuse telling the courts about their experiences.”
The domestic abuse commissioner-designate has talked about
“the potential for the idea of ‘parental alienation’ to be weaponised by perpetrators of domestic abuse to silence their victims within the Family Court.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, said that the justice system needs to be better equipped to deal with these issues. As my noble friend Lady Brinton said, the House will consider in Amendment 44 whether there should be mandatory training, so that magistrates and judges at all levels might be better trained in this and other areas of domestic abuse. I accept that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, thinks that the existing training is adequate but, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, we believe that there should be changes to the training of the judiciary, rather than
“behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship of a child of the parent and the other parent”
being listed as part of the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill. For these reasons, we do not support the amendment.
My Lords, I remind the House that I sit as a family magistrate in central London and regularly deal with these types of cases. I have to say that this has been a better debate than the one we had in Committee. The reason is that many of the speakers showed a greater appreciation of the complexity of these types of cases, which we hear in court. A number of speakers, including those who put their names to this amendment, stated that if the Minister were to make it crystal clear that the term “parental alienation” will be dealt with fully outside of the Bill, then they would think that a good solution to the issue in the amendment. We have also had a number of very eminent lawyers—the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay and Lord Morris, and my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti—clearly say their view is that the amendment is not necessary, as long as the issue itself is addressed elsewhere.
We have had a lot of contributions and I will not go through all the speeches. However, I want to pick up a couple of points noble Lords have made, in particular a contribution by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. He spoke about the distressing and polarising effects of the issue being debated in Committee; I think we have all received a huge amount of lobbying material since then. He also said that he had no doubt that parental alienation exists and that professional organisations such as Cafcass, through its child impact assessment, and the court system try to address the whole range of domestic abuse, including parental alienation.
I want to make one point, which has not been made by any other speaker, and stems from that made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. She summarised it, in a typically succinct way, by saying that the effects on the child are twofold: first, the witnessing, either directly or indirectly, of domestic abuse, which is clearly extremely bad for the child; and secondly, the malicious attempt by a parent to turn the child against the other parent. She has characterised that issue accurately, but I have been sitting as a family magistrate for about eight years now and have seen many cases where a parent has admitted, perhaps through a conviction, that their behaviour means they have committed such abuse. I have seen that many times but never seen a parent admit trying maliciously to alienate the child from the other parent. I have simply never seen a parent acknowledge that they have indulged in such a course of action. The court is of course in a very difficult position, so we move on to the possible use of experts, training for the judiciary and the life experience of magistrates and judges who are dealing with these cases.
I come back to where I opened: there has been a greater acknowledgement by the contributors to today’s debate of the difficulty in making these decisions. Of course, I am in favour of more training—magistrates, lawyers and judges are trained in any event, but more training would be welcome. I hope that the Minister will manage to convince the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, that it is not necessary to press her amendment. I personally believe that the issues she has raised and the intensity of the speeches she has given can be properly met through regulations under the Bill.
My Lords, on this International Women’s Day, I pay tribute to the courage of and thank my noble friend Lady Meyer, and other noble Lords, for their continued engagement on this issue. As pointed out by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, parental alienation clearly proved to be one of the most polarising issues in Committee. He challenged us to focus on the areas of agreement and I will try to do that. It was apposite that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, referred to the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord and said that we had a better debate today than we did in Committee. I agree. We are beginning to develop a shared understanding on where we are trying to get to on this, and to understand what points the amendment is driving at.
My noble friend Lady Meyer has lived experience of this very difficult, deeply distressing and personal issue, and 19 years of campaigning experience to boot in the area of alienating behaviours. I pay tribute to her; in no way do I seek to deny or to minimise the devastating impact that alienating behaviours can have on family life. But we must carefully consider the suggestion that legislation in the form of my noble friend’s amendment is the appropriate response here, and I hope that I can give her comfort on that. I will now outline the aspect of things that I think go to the heart of the Bill and the nub of the point that she is trying to make.
Our approach in Clause 1 is to define domestic abuse by reference to types of abusive behaviours, as pointed out by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and by the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle—although he agrees with the amendment—and not by reference to the form in which those behaviours may be manifested. We are fearful of creating a hierarchy of behaviours by appearing to give more weight to one manifestation than another, and do not—as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay said—wish to inadvertently narrow the Clause 1 definition by giving specific examples such as that proposed by my noble friend in her amendment to Clause 1(5), as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, pointed out. The behaviours to which my noble friend Lady Altmann referred would be in scope; whether the examples she cites would be covered would clearly be a matter for the courts to decide.
As I indicated in Committee, I accept that there are circumstances where alienating behaviours indicate a wider pattern of emotional or psychological abuse. However, where this is the case the definition of domestic abuse in Clause 1—subsections (3)(e) and (5) are particularly relevant, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Brinton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, said—already applies and, as such, does not need to be further expanded.
To answer the question about statutory guidance asked by my noble friend Lady Meyer, and almost all noble Lords who spoke in this debate, the draft statutory guidance covers alienating behaviours. I am very grateful to noble Lords who have already shared their views on the guidance and we welcome further feedback and suggestions for improvement. There will then be a further opportunity to comment on the guidance when we formally consult following Royal Assent.
One of the strengths of the Bill is that it recognises the impact of domestic abuse on children, considering them as victims in their own right. From the perspective of risk of harm to the child, the relevant legal framework is provided for in Section 1 of the Children Act 1989, together with the definition of harm in that Act. My noble friend Lady Meyer and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referenced the Cafcass definition of parental alienation. Although that definition supports our shared understanding of the impact of alienating behaviours on the child, it is an important point of clarification that the Cafcass definition is not one of domestic abuse—we need to be clear about that. Cafcass is clear that there are a number of reasons why a child might resist time with, or be hostile towards, one parent following separation or other breakdown of a parental relationship.
I fully accept that the impact of decisions made by the family courts can be life-changing for parents and children, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern illustrated. Any allegations of harm, including alienating behaviours, should be properly and fully scrutinised by the court, as my noble friend Lady Stroud said, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, emphasised. It is for the court to decide child arrangements based on the facts of the case and with the welfare of the child as the key concern.
I listened intently to the testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, about historic court practice. I acknowledge that there is work to be done to improve the court process and particularly to ensure that the system better protects victims of domestic abuse and their children. The Government have already committed to addressing long-standing and systemic issues following the findings of the Expert Panel on Harm in the Family Courts, which the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to. Specific commitments already address a number of suggestions made during the passage of the Bill in relation to this amendment: from the need for updated training and guidance across the family justice system to the importance of enhancing the voice of the child. I can assure my noble friend that there is widespread commitment to system-wide reform in this area.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked what measures are in place to ensure expert witnesses meet practice direction 25b. Under practice direction 25b, experts must comply with the standards set out in the Standards for Expert Witnesses in the Family Courts. I thank the London Victims’ Commissioner for her thorough briefing to Ministers and the President of the Family Division on this. I might add that the domestic abuse protection orders will be available in the family and other courts. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay was quite right to suggest that a DAPO offers a remedy in these cases.
I indicated at the start of my remarks that the Government need to listen to all sides of the debate when coming to a view on matters such as this. My noble friend will be aware that her amendment faces opposition from those representing domestic abuse victims and survivors. The domestic abuse commissioner designate, past and present Victims’ Commissioners, the London Victims’ Commissioner and Women’s Aid are all opposed to this amendment. It is incumbent upon all of us to understand why.
Adding parental alienation to the Bill could allow it to be weaponised by perpetrators of domestic abuse, as I think I have heard noble Lords say. Perpetrators who are not seeing their children because their former partners are trying to keep those children safe could, for example, allege in turn that they are victims of domestic abuse themselves in the form of parental alienation. I am grateful to those who have raised concerns on this point, and I agree that we cannot allow survivors of domestic abuse to be reframed as perpetrators in this way.
We should further be concerned that fear of false allegations of parental alienation already present a barrier to victims telling the courts about their experiences of abuse and those of their children. I note, as other noble Lords and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, have commented, that those experiences are evidenced in the harm panel report published last year. This presents a real and serious risk which runs contrary to the purpose of the Bill.
The Bill seeks to improve our understanding of and response to domestic abuse. Although unintended, including parental alienation on the face of the Bill—in whatever terms it is described—risks silencing survivors of domestic abuse and, worse, risks further harm to survivors and their children. I acknowledge the complexities involved in this debate, but I submit that these risks must be avoided.
While I acknowledge the desire of the noble Baroness and others to include reference to parental alienation in guidance, I hope that, in the light of my explanation—and given that the Bill provides for behaviours that manifest themselves in parental alienation—my noble friend will feel happy to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, first, I would like to thank those who put their names to my amendment: my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, my noble friend Lady Altmann and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. I also thank everybody who spoke today, particularly those who spoke in favour of the amendment. It has been a very interesting debate and I thank everybody for participating.
In the light of the conclusions reached, I now realise that my job has not been done whatsoever. There is still a huge misunderstanding about the point of my amendment and what parental alienation—call it what you like—is about. We are talking not about false allegations but real allegations. We are talking about parents who have been abused by the other parent using the child; this is a terrible form of abuse.
Listen to the London Victims’ Commissioner, who has actually been attacking all the mothers and fathers talking about parental alienation; look at the Twitter war that has been going on; it has been very ugly. I am really hurt that people say that you have to listen to the victims, but they are choosing which types of victims. Hordes of parents, some of whom are probably listening now, have been emailing me and signing letters saying, “Please stand for us”. Their voices are not heard.
I am really disappointed that the Government have not listened and understood what I was trying to do. I understand that some mothers are worried that this could be used against them, but, as everybody has said, the courts could make a decision. The courts obviously need a bit more training but because this issue is so complicated, we also need to involve psychiatrists.
There is a deep misunderstanding about what constitutes an alienated—or whatever term you use—child. Usually, those children have been separated from and have no access whatsoever to one of their parents, and their parent is constantly telling them that the other parent does not love them. Some have even been told that their other parent is dead. In my submission I had letters about people who committed suicide and letters from parents of children who committed suicide.
I hope that, as a minimum, the Minister can guarantee that this issue is going to be addressed in the guidance. More debate and conversations need to take place, because it needs to be understood better. In the light of the evidence before me, I will withdraw my amendment, but I very much hope that something will be done. I will probably come back to this issue because I have fought for it for 19 years and I have still not communicated what it is really about. I think I still have a war ahead of me. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendment 3 not moved.
4: Clause 2, page 2, line 29, at end insert—
“( ) A is a carer for B who is a disabled person.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the amendments at page 2, lines 34 and 37, in the name of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, would bring the relationship between a disabled person and their carer within the definition of “personally connected”.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 4 to Clause 2 I will also speak to my Amendments 5 and 6. These amendments would bring the abuse of disabled people by carers within the scope of domestic abuse under Clause 2. I should mention that I have also tabled Amendments 46 and 47, which would make identical changes in relation to controlling or coercive behaviour under Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. They will be discussed on another day.
I thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and her officials for our recent meeting, which was very helpful in clarifying our mutual concerns, which I will refer to in a moment. Sadly, I have heard nothing further since, so I assume that the Government are not yet convinced that the Bill should include disabled people and carers. I hope that, after hearing today’s contributions, the noble Lord the Minister will commit to return at Third Reading with an alternative clear offer, otherwise I am afraid that I will have no other option than to divide the House.
Amendment 4 has cross-party support. I am grateful to all co-signatories for their advice and backing on this issue, and to many other Members across the House who also wished to be co-signatories. Since Committee I have given the issue a lot of attention, consulting, among others, organisations dealing with disabled victims of domestic abuse. I also sought a legal opinion from lawyers specialising in social care and disability discrimination.
The vast majority of carers are caring, compassionate and utterly loyal. We owe our lives to them—I know I do—but in a small number of cases this is not so. Domestic abuse is not limited to family members or sexual partners. That is what we used to understand by the term; today, we know better. Disabled people of any age can be abused by those on whose care they rely. These relationships often involve an imbalance of power and are just as susceptible to abuse as those between family members or partners. Disabled people may be wholly dependent on another to live an independent and active life, 24 hours a day. That dependency and the trust that it requires makes them an easy target to exploit or abuse.
The Joint Committee on the draft Bill recognised that abuse by carers “mirrors” abuse
“seen in the other relationships covered by this Bill”,
and, importantly, occurs in a domestic setting. It recommended amending Clause 2 to include all disabled people and their carers, paid or unpaid.
Some of our closest and most intimate personal relationships are with those who care for us. Many carers see us naked in the shower, have access to our bank accounts and observe us at our weakest, physically, mentally or emotionally. This can make us feel very vulnerable. They are often privy to things that we do not share even with our family or partners.
I speak from 30 years of personal experience, but not only from that: I am also as a former CEO of the National Centre for Independent Living, working with thousands of disabled people who managed their carers, often termed personal assistants. I remember one haunting example of abuse of a severely disabled man without speech who came to me. He had a communication board that was regularly removed from reach so that his carer was not interrupted. He was too afraid to complain because, as he put it, of the “likely consequences”. Evidence from Stay Safe East and other organisations clearly demonstrates that such abuse continues today.
To deny such people the protection of this Bill would be wholly unjust and discriminatory. The abuse is no different. As the legal opinion says, it is also likely to be unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Article 3 on inhuman or degrading treatment, or Article 8 on respect for private and family life.
If the Government wish to exclude disabled people from the Bill they must show a genuine reason for doing so and for why it is appropriate and necessary. I have not yet heard a convincing explanation. I ask the Minister: who was consulted in the disability sector? I know that government officials spoke to carers and women’s groups. While they are often the primary carers, it is equally important to get the views of those in receipt of care.
The Government’s main objection, indicated in my recent meeting with them, is that including disabled people and their carers “would change the definition”, and while they accepted that the abuse is the same, they felt, in their words, that it was “not domestic abuse as people understand it”. I find this completely bizarre. It is hard to believe that the public would make that distinction. If the abuse takes place at home, in a relationship akin to family members or partners, that is abuse in a domestic setting and warrants the same protection.
The other objection is that it would widen the scope of the Bill too far, including all sorts of carers, such as a friend who does the weekly shop. This completely misses the point. Caring for a disabled person might start with friends or neighbours popping in occasionally, but evidence from Stay Safe East shows that it sometimes develops into an unwanted personal relationship that encroaches on the disabled person’s private life, which the carer then exploits.
So often when disabled people fight for their civil and human rights, we are told that our demands would open the floodgates to unmanageable litigation. It has happened at every stage of the campaign for disability rights legislation. This is not the place to repeat that exercise.
The Government also say that disabled people are already protected from carer abuse, and point to the safeguarding provisions in the Care Act 2014 as the answer to abuse by carers. But Section 42 requires local authorities, where they think there is a risk of abuse, only to make inquiries to see whether action is needed. Many disabled people do not engage with social services safeguarding. Thousands of disabled people employ their own carers or personal assistants and are not touched by social services. It is simply inadequate to protect disabled people and not fit for purpose.
Similarly, Section 20 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, which creates the offence of ill treatment or wilful neglect, applies only to paid carers. It is a higher bar than proving abuse under this Bill. Unlike this Bill, neither of those provisions gives disabled people the means to deal with abuse themselves—they have to rely on others. Nor do they have access to the other benefits of this Bill, such as the new commissioner’s role.
We have an opportunity to make this a truly progressive Bill, one that understands multiple circumstances in which domestic abuse arises. Disabled people have not been well served in recent years, and the pandemic has shone a spotlight on discrimination by indifference. Let us not endorse that again in this Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and to support her in her wish to include carers within the scope of the Bill. As she said, this set of amendments would bring the relationship between a disabled person and their carer, whether paid or unpaid, within the definition of “personally connected”.
As the noble Baroness has said, the Joint Committee on the Bill recommended that carers should be included, after receiving significant evidence from the charity Stay Safe about the level of abuse within these highly personal and close relationships. I remain puzzled as to why the Government are not agreeing to do this. As the noble Baroness said, part of the reason is that the Government believe the group covered by these amendments is fully protected by existing legislation, primarily within social care Act safeguarding measures. However, I challenge that. As Stay Safe East has said, disabled women are three times as likely to experience domestic abuse, and four times as likely to report abuse from multiple perpetrators, as non-disabled women. It does not look as though the safeguarding measures are preventing that. Disabled women are also up to three times as likely to experience domestic abuse at the hands of family members, some of whom will also be their carers. We also know that disabled people also experience abuse from paid and unpaid carers or personal assistants.
The noble Baroness has also referred to the opinion from Bindmans LLP. The summary of their opinion is very clear:
“a. The relationship between disabled people and their carers is analogous to the other relationships which fall within the definition of ‘personally connected’ for the purposes of clause 2(1) of the DA Bill.
b. None of the existing legislation identified by Government provides equivalent protection against domestic abuse for disabled people so as to make it unnecessary for the relationship between disabled people and their carers to be brought within the scope of clause 2(1), and thereby the substantive provisions of the DA Bill.
c. Failing to bring the relationship between disabled people and their carers within the scope of clause 2(1), and thereby the substantive provisions of the DA Bill, is likely to result in unlawful discrimination against disabled people contrary to Article 14 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)”.
If the Minister is relying on existing legislation and safeguarding measures, I am afraid that the evidence is that this is not sufficient. That is the reason why the noble Baroness has argued so persuasively for this amendment, and I very much hope that she presses it to a Division.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, for tabling these amendments, and am grateful for the earlier work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson.
I will start by commenting on the relationship between a disabled person and their carer. It is difficult for someone who is not disabled to understand the intimate nature of that care which has to be given, and the relationship which inevitably builds up, whether the carer is paid or unpaid. The language talks about a “lived experience”, which trots glibly off the tongue, but it is not easy. At best, it is a relationship of trust, where the carer supports and enables the person being cared for to live the life that the disabled person wants to live themselves. But there are some cases where the behaviours of the carer are not beneficial, but are controlling, coercive or physically abuse, yet they fall outside the domestic abuse definition. That is why it is so important that the definition of “personally connected” is recognised. It is such a neat solution, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, has pointed out, it is vital that the definition is similar to the definition in the Serious Crime Act. She is right: they are complementary and will provide consistency and coherence between the Bill and the 2015 Act.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in his excellent speech just now, referred to the excellent work of Stay Safe East. One of the women helped by Stay Safe East said:
“They think just because I’ve got a learning disability, I don’t know it’s wrong to treat me like that. I just want to be safe and live my life.”
Mencap points out that people with learning disabilities can be abused by any type of personal carer, not just in establishments such as Winterbourne View. The problem with private care at home is that often it is not visible at all. That is why these amendments are so important. The Bill needs to understand that the relationship between disabled people and their personal carers is akin to the familial and relationship definitions used elsewhere in domestic abuse legislation.
I hope the Minister will take on board the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and the large number of disabled Peers speaking to her amendments, and the wider community of disabled people who need this protection.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. As International Women’s Day draws to a close, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, for introducing what is surely a practical, common sense set of amendments. She has identified a significant gap in protections for victims of domestic abuse. To her credit, through these amendments, she has also identified an expert and eminently sensible solution. I suggest that we are in her debt for her wisdom, her fortitude and her foresight.
I say that because this is as much about us here today in your Lordships’ House, and those noble Lords watching this debate and contributing to it virtually, as it is about anyone. One has only to consider the average age of noble Lords—well over 50% are aged 70 and above—to realise that we are in fact among those who most urgently need this reform. Lest we are inclined to tell ourselves that this is about “them”, “the other”, “over there”, those whom non-disabled people so often describe as “the disabled”, we should consider these simple facts. According to the World Health Organization, 15 million people have strokes each year worldwide. Of these, 5 million die and another 5 million are permanently disabled. According to the Stroke Association, here in the UK 100,000 people have strokes each year. Stroke strikes every five minutes. In other words, acquiring a severe, incapacitating disability can happen to any of us.
I imagine that most of us would like to believe that this is an issue about which we can perhaps sympathise in a detached way but with which we do not need to concern ourselves too much. On the basis of personal experience and the incident statistics that I have referred to for strokes, I would say the opposite. Nearly three-quarters of strokes occur in people over the age of 65, as are many Members of your Lordships’ House. This amendment is about us.
I appreciate that some noble Lords might be concerned about people making vexatious claims as a result of these amendments. I simply put this question to those who harbour such doubts: if any of us had a stroke later today and in due course found ourselves not only dependent on a carer but also subject to abuse by that carer in our own home, how vexatious would we regard our claim? Surely we would instead be relieved that we had passed this amendment and ensured that essential and equal safeguards had thereby been written into law, for at its heart the reform that these amendments would bring about is rooted in equality.
I suggest to my noble friend the Minister that, with the much-heralded launch of the Prime Minister’s national strategy for disabled people due in the near future, this is a golden opportunity for the Government to show that they get equality. That means ensuring that disabled people are treated with dignity and thereby adequately and equally protected from abuse in the domestic setting. That equal treatment needs to be based on a simple recognition that disability, especially when an impairment makes a disabled person reliant on the carer or personal assistant, also makes them vulnerable to domestic abuse by their carer or personal assistant.
I close, as I began, by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, for giving your Lordships’ House the opportunity to reflect on a simple truth. Yes, this is about equality, no more, no less, yet it is also about each of us, our families, our friends and those whom we love, all of whom I am sure we would wish to see adequately and equally protected in law. That is what this amendment would achieve and it is why I hope that noble Lords will join me in supporting it, should the noble Baroness divide the House, either today or subsequently at Third Reading.
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate on these amendments so well introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, and subsequent speakers, particularly my noble friend Lord Shinkwin.
I feel in many respects vastly underqualified to speak on these amendments. Reading the Committee stage debates, I understood the idea of whether we wanted to extend “personally connected”—I had been putting down something about domestic servants in this regard. However, from listening to the speeches that we have all been privileged to hear, it is apparent that the relationship between a carer and the person for whom they are caring is extremely special and, in many instances, very intimate. It must come under the domestic category. In many cases, probably all cases, it will be happening inside the home, which is the definition of domestic.
The Government may well say that there is sufficient protection elsewhere in the law, but victims of domestic abuse find it difficult to escape, in every sense of the word, from their abusers. Surely for people with disabilities it is impossible to escape. They are often at the mercy of a carer if that carer is abusing. I will listen carefully to the rest of the speeches and of course to my noble friend the Minister, but I find it difficult to understand why these amendments cannot be accepted. I hope that if not now, then by Third Reading, something along the lines of these amendments can be put into the Bill.
My Lords, I am delighted to support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton, to which my name is also attached. I, too, thank Stay Safe for its support in getting the experiences of disabled women into public view. My noble friend and other noble Lords have described the need for the amendments in this group. However, I will reiterate a few points, because there has been much discussion about whether the Domestic Abuse Bill is the correct vehicle to protect disabled people who are victims of domestic abuse. It is a very simple yes.
To say that either the Care Act 2014 or the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 adequately cover disabled people is fundamentally to misunderstand the relationship between a disabled person and their carer, as my noble friend Lady Campbell has movingly explained. It can be a complicated relationship, but that does not give any excuse or reason not to better understand it. I am pleased that there is far more understanding about coercive and controlling relationships, but we need to understand how these relationships affect everyone, including disabled people.
I see this in quite a simple way. Domestic abuse legislation is the correct vehicle because abuse takes place in a domestic setting and the relationship is very definitely intimate—just talk to any disabled person who receives care. Including this here will help with the wider understanding of the scale of the abuse against disabled people, but it is also important for the individuals who are experiencing it, if and when they seek support. I worry that, if disabled people are not included in this legislation, they will fall through the net of reporting and of subsequent support and it will push them into greater peril.
Some might believe that social care provision will protect disabled people through safeguarding procedures. Many disabled people who employ personal assistants or carers do not engage with social services or their safeguarding procedures. There are many reasons for this. Disabled people want independence and choice, but there can be a real fear that, if they go through this process, the assumption is that they will not be able to run their own care package and the direct payments and control may be taken back.
I was trying to think of another comparator. This is not a perfect one, but it could be understood more widely, perhaps, if one thinks of a single mother avoiding social service help because she fears that her children might be taken away or that she might lose personal control of her situation. There is a different debate to be held about the regulation of carers, but the unique situation and the specialised or individualised nature of the support that a disabled person requires mean that carers do not necessarily come into the role regulated, well trained and managed.
The view that disabled people should not be treated differently from non-disabled people is admirable and in most cases I would strongly support it, but we have to recognise that the lived daily experience of disabled people is not equal in our society and there are significant amounts of discrimination. We are a long way from equality. Equity would be ensuring that disabled people were not left behind by this legislation.
I am concerned that the views of disabled people have not been adequately sought in this legislation. I ask the Minister which groups of disabled women have been consulted during this process. Given the significant number of disabled people impacted by domestic abuse, it is imperative that the amendment be accepted.
I am very much looking forward to the new government strategy for disabled people, which I understand is due shortly. If the Government are serious about protecting and supporting disabled people, they should accept the amendment or produce their own version of it. I would be delighted to speak further with the Minister and the Bill team, but if my noble friend decides to test the opinion of the House at any stage, not only will she have significant support but I will metaphorically follow her through the Lobby.
My Lords, I have rarely heard a series of more moving speeches, beginning with that of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton; she always speaks with authority but today she exceeded herself. I was moved too by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, whom I have the privilege of following, and by my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, who spoke with a quiet, intense passion. I hope the Minister will be able to give encouragement.
I have often referred to this Bill, and I have done so again today, as a landmark Bill. If it is to be truly a landmark Bill, it has to be all-embracing. There can be no more sensitive relationship of a domestic nature than that between a disabled person, particularly if we are dealing with a severely disabled person, and those who care for her or him. I feel very strongly that the Bill should include what, in a sense, is the most domestic of all relationships. I have no personal experience but I have vicarious experience: my mother in her last years depended very much upon carers, and so did my wife’s mother in her last years. One sees how that relationship is fundamental to the comfort, indeed the very survival, of those being cared for.
It really is the most appalling abuse of all if a vulnerable disabled person is abused by their carer. We all know that it happens because we have seen instances of relatives having to install video cameras in care homes. We have seen some terrible examples of people in their own homes being abused and taken financial advantage of, and indeed every other sort of advantage, by those upon whom they depend for their very existence.
I very much hope it will not be necessary to divide the House on this issue because I hope the Minister will be able to tell us, if she cannot accept these amendments, that she will come back with her own at Third Reading. There are many honourable precedents for that in our legislation and our legislative process, and it would be sad if the House were divided on a subject on which I am sure we are all fundamentally united: that disabled persons deserve respect, care and consideration and to be protected from any who might transgress in looking after them.
I look forward to my noble friend’s response. I hope it will be sympathetic and empathetic, that the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, will not need to press her amendment to a Division and that at Third Reading we will be able to move forward. I add my name to the question that has already been asked about how many organisations representing disabled people have been consulted during the drawing up of the Bill.
This is a good cause. I hope my noble friend will be able to reassure us and, most of all, disabled people up and down the land when she comes to reply.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow so many eminent speakers. I support these amendments, which have been carefully designed and described by my noble friends Lady Campbell of Surbiton and Lady Grey-Thompson, together with the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport.
We have heard three moving and compelling speeches from experts with lived experience. I thank my noble friend Lady Campbell for the bundle of information she sent ahead of this debate, for her rigour in representing the interests of disabled people and for highlighting that their relationships with non-family caregivers are analogous to the other relationships that fall within the definition of “personally connected” for the purposes of Clause 2(1) of the Bill.
Legal advice has suggested that a failure to bring the relationship between disabled people and their carers within the scope of Clause 2(1) could result in unlawful discrimination against disabled people, contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights when read with Articles 3 and 8. Could the Minister address that point when summing up? I am certain that all Members of the House would wish any anticipated discrimination to be avoided in the drafting of the Bill.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins. I declare an interest as vice-president of Livability.
I very much support the intent in this group of amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, who presented the case so ably at the beginning of this debate. As the parent of a child with a severe learning and physical disability, I know from personal experience the potential risks associated with those who are responsible for the care of disabled persons. In addition, having established a charity responsible for providing care for adults with learning disabilities in the north-east of England called At Home in the Community, I know how sensitive and tense the relationships can be between parents and a disabled son or daughter, between carers and the disabled person and between carers and parents. The frustrations of providing care for a disabled person whose behaviour can be immensely challenging and demanding can boil over, no matter how much they are loved. They can become the innocent third party in abusive relationships and suffer abuse themselves as a consequence.
Sadly, multiple reports over the years have shown that disabled people are much more likely to suffer abuse for longer periods of time. Many individuals are unable to communicate verbally, so identifying abuse can be difficult. Often unable to protect themselves, they can become very isolated and introverted. The vulnerability of their situation can lead to reliance and dependency on the very person being abusive. We had a case within a managed care home of abuse by a hitherto trusted member of staff who manipulated residents over a number of months before detection.
For many residents of care homes, the home they live in is their home. We had cases of individuals whose parents had both sadly died, so their carers and fellow residents were their family. Support in the care sector, whether in a family home or residential care home, relies on the dedication and integrity of mostly—one has to say sadly—low-paid care staff, most of whom are brilliant and support their vulnerable people marvellously. Sadly, however, some do abuse. Drawing attention to this and making provision for it in the Bill is an important step in mitigating it and preventing it from continuing. I hope that the Minister supports this amendment.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Shinkwin and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, who have spoken in favour of these amendments. They seek to ensure that domestic abuse, as defined in Clause 2(1), covers those people who are disabled—and often, perhaps, elderly—as well as all other groups.
Such citizens can be in a deeply intimate yet non-sexual relationship, due to their need for someone to care for them, perhaps in their home. They need someone to care for them just to survive, and so that they can live their life as independently as possible. If these people are abused by someone who helps them in their own home, why would they not be covered in exactly the same way as other groups, including spouses, friends, partners and their children, who currently meet the definition in the Bill?
In this country, there is sometimes a cultural disinclination to talk about or engage closely with the issue of people who need care or who live with disabilities. This may even explain why social care reform is constantly pushed into the proverbial long grass. Yes, this can be a complex subject, and not everybody wants to discuss it, but why would someone who is cared for by another, who may be paid or unpaid, not be entitled to the same protection as a spouse who is abused by their partner? If the Government wish to support people who live in their own home, especially as we have an ageing population, and to be in the community, which disabled or elderly people usually want, developing a strong system of protection for cases of abuse is essential. This landmark Bill is an ideal place to start.
The vast majority of carers are angels. They are heroes, who carry out their demanding and often draining role with compassion, dedication and sensitivity. However, as other noble Lords have explained, there are distressing examples of when they have abused highly vulnerable adults in their care.
I support the rights of disabled people, as I know the Minister does. I know that she cares passionately about this group of wonderful individuals in our society, but I find it difficult to understand why the Government are resisting the inclusion of disabled people within the protections of a Domestic Abuse Bill. Such situations should be placed squarely in the remit covered by this ground-breaking Bill. Is it not time to tackle all cultures of domestic abuse and offer widespread remedies to all citizens? Surely this group should be part of that.
My Lords, I know from my personal family and professional experience of people with learning disabilities that domestic violence can involve both paid and informal carers, including family members. I will not repeat the excellent points made by the noble Lord, Lord Curry. I am very pleased to support my noble friend Lady Campbell and to follow such powerful speeches.
The weakness in the Government’s position is that it underestimates the important similarities between carer relationships and those already in the Bill. It perhaps assumes that local authorities or the CQC will have sight of all carer arrangements, particularly for informal care, but this is just not true. I quote the January Stay Safe East report on discrimination, which says:
“The current definition of domestic abuse has a discriminatory impact on disabled victims of domestic abuse by non-family carers, who have no access to an Independent Domestic Violence Adviser, refuges or other domestic abuse services or to the network of therapeutic and other services open to other domestic abuse victims.”
The exclusion of carers from the definition of “personally connected” not only is blind to the reality of the closeness and complexity of carer relationships but would be discriminatory to disabled people on the receiving end of domestic abuse from carers, because they would be excluded from services. The exclusion fails to recognise that the significant relationships of disabled people may be different from those of non-disabled people. This also applies to people with learning disabilities.
My remaining point has already been made, so I will not take up time with it.