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Non-fatal Strangulation and Suffocation

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 8 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made, if any, of (1) the number of non-fatal strangulation and suffocation incidents each year in England and Wales, and (2) the division of such incidents between (a) cases of domestic abuse, (b) cases of sexual violence, and (c) other situations.

My Lords, while the Ministry of Justice holds significant information on offences, data is not collated centrally beyond registering the offence under which a defendant is prosecuted, convicted or sentenced. Non-fatal strangulation is not yet a specific offence, so it is difficult to identify how many people have been convicted of the various offences that can involve strangulation. Nor are strangulation offences likely to fit neatly into the categories of domestic abuse or sexual violence.

[Inaudible]—and the new specific offence being introduced in the Domestic Abuse Act. Does my noble friend agree that assessing the scale of the problem is a priority so that the Government can be sure that there will be appropriate forensic, medical and other services for victims across England and Wales when the offence is introduced? Currently, forensic services tend to be available only when the attack is part of a sexual assault, and the majority of these attacks take place within domestic abuse, not involving sexual abuse. Does my noble friend therefore recognise that where there is forensic medical evidence, it should be documented and that already there are too few forensic medical services, so the new specific offence of strangulation and suffocation will require forensic services to be expanded?

I did not hear the first part of my noble friend’s question but, on the point she mentions, we seek to capture data in an appropriate way. As I explained, we focus on the offence, so when the new offence of non-fatal strangulation comes into force, we will be capturing data for it and that will, of course, help the services that she mentioned to provide their work as well.

I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, on her continuing tenacity. Will the Minister clarify whether there is a timescale for ensuring that real-time, important data will be collated, and will it be held centrally, once the police services have got their act together?

My Lords, we are looking to bring in the offence of non-fatal strangulation as soon as we can. We waited to bring it in after Royal Assent to make sure that all the various services, including the police, are ready to investigate and prosecute it. Once we have the data, it will be used in an appropriate manner.

Will the Minister consider launching an awareness campaign to run alongside the new offence so that the public are made more aware of the danger and criminal consequences of strangulation and suffocation? Does he agree that this is needed not just to help those being attacked as part of domestic abuse but to counter the normalisation of strangulation in pornography?

My Lords, I agree that an awareness campaign is important. Of course, having the offence itself will raise awareness. Perhaps I may make a topical point. We know that domestic abuse goes up when there are big football matches and, while we all want England to win, we must remember those for whom “It’s coming home” is a threat often accompanied by alcohol and violence.

My Lords, I am always shocked that many police forces still do not have specialist domestic abuse units. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that now we have offences such as non-fatal strangulation, the provision of those units and specialist training for front-line officers are even more crucial? What steps are the Government taking to ascertain the proportion of domestic abuse cases that are dealt with by specialist teams, in order to improve the situation?

My noble friend is absolutely right. We need important work by the police in this area. The College of Policing has issued guidance to all its forces to ensure that domestic abuse receives proper priority, and 29 forces have received that training as of June 2021. A recent evaluation showed a 41% increase in arrests for controlling or coercive behaviour.

My Lords, this week, an interim report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services had the headline:

“Epidemic of violence against women underway in England and Wales”.

The report contained the shocking figures of 1.6 million women who had experienced domestic abuse up to last year, and more than 150,000 rape and sexual offences recorded by police, 84% of the victims being women. Is there any cross-governmental action on engagement with men and boys to educate about and campaign against the causes of male violence and misogyny, and deal with what is now described as a “rape culture”?

My Lords, I recently answered questions on the End-to-End Rape Review Report, which set out a robust programme of work right across the criminal justice system and beyond to make sure that we respond appropriately to rape and sexual violence offences. We want to increase the number of cases reaching court, reduce the number of victims who withdraw from the process and ultimately put more rapists behind bars.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention in California, which is helping tackle the crime of strangulation by sharing knowledge and training resources in the United States? Does he agree that, given the very welcome new offence in the Domestic Abuse Act, it would be sensible to investigate how a similar centre for expertise here could help drive the changes that the Government are making to tackle strangulation and suffocation? It could share training resources, encourage the sharing of knowledge and co-ordinate research so that more victims of this violence could be protected, and more offenders held to account for these crimes.

My Lords, I am confident that my officials will be aware of that programme, but I personally am not. Could my noble friend write to me—or I will write to her—so that we can exchange information about that? It sounds like a very useful programme and I would be very happy to learn more about it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, is to be warmly congratulated on her successful campaign to include non-fatal strangulation in the Act. Does the Minister agree that, for it to be effective, we must have the kind of information that the noble Baroness has asked for—both the number of cases and their relationship to sexual violence more widely? I understand that it is not possible to have that information available now, but will he perhaps commit to reporting to Parliament within a year, when the Act has been in operation for a year, in response to her question about those figures?

My Lords, we have to be a bit careful here. There will be a new offence of non-fatal strangulation, but non-fatal strangulation can also be an element in many other offences such as grievous bodily harm with intent. It can form part of a course of action that amounts to the offence of controlling and coercive behaviour. It can form part of just drunken thuggery outside a pub or a night club. We therefore have to be very careful. We collect statistics on offences; we do not really collect statistics on behaviour, and that lies at the heart of a number of the answers that I have given today.

My Lords, this amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill was hard fought for by victims and by Members across all parties in both Houses. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the relevant organisations are properly ready to implement the new offence of strangulation and suffocation? Have processes been put in place to ensure that training and guidance will be available before the offence comes into force, so that the police, the CPS, the courts, the health service and local authority domestic abuse partnerships are prepared and sufficiently resourced to tackle this crime effectively from its implementation?

My Lords, of course we need all agencies to be aware of their responsibilities. I have already spoken about the police. To pick another example, judicial training in domestic abuse is included in family law and criminal courses run by the Judicial College; it is prioritised for induction and continuation training. All judges get that training before they hear family cases and are therefore on top of domestic abuse issues.

My Lords, may I underline the point made by the noble Lord at the beginning of this session? My daughter-in-law did a thesis on the connection between violence, domestic abuse and sporting events. It is clearly a considerable problem. He is right to remind us of that.

The New Zealand Law Commission advised that the offence should require proof of strangulation but not proof of injury, on the basis that so many of these strangulation incidents do not cause visible physical injury. Is that the approach that the noble Lord is taking? Where does consent come into the new offence?

My Lords, I will take the point about visible signs of injury first. A visible sign of injury is not needed: the offence requires the Crown to show beyond reasonable doubt that the person strangled or otherwise did something to affect another person’s breathing. You do not necessarily need visible signs of injury. The consent point raised by the noble Lord is a huge legal point. I summarise it by saying that it effectively follows the decision of the House of Lords in R v Brown that you cannot consent to serious harm. To say any more would, I am afraid, exceed the time allowance.