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Violence against Women and Domestic Violence

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 1 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to remove the reservation on Article 59 of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, now that they have ratified the convention.

My Lords, the Government are committed to tackling violence against women and girls. We were therefore delighted to ratify the Istanbul convention in July and it came into force in the UK on 1 November. We are carefully considering the findings of the Support for Migrant Victims scheme pilot evaluation to ensure that migrant victims are supported effectively. We remain committed to making a timely decision on whether it is appropriate to maintain our reservation on Article 59 of the convention.

I have to say that I expected that Answer from the Minister but I thank him anyway. Is he aware that Southall Black Sisters, which was running the pilot scheme, has said that the scheme has a different focus on Article 59 and therefore should not be used to justify the reservation? Will he agree to meet representatives from SBS so that they can explain why they do not believe there is a need to wait for the pilot scheme report before the Government remove the reservation on Article 59?

As we are half way through the 16 days of action by White Ribbon, which campaigns against violence against women and girls, does the Minister also agree that this would be a wonderful opportunity for the Government to show their support for migrant women who suffer from domestic abuse while the perpetrators hold over them the threat that, if they leave, they will lose their status in this country? Will the Minister commit to that today?

My Lords, as I said, the Government are considering the report received from the organisations, including Southall Black Sisters, that operated the pilot scheme, and will respond in due course. I think that is as far as I can go at the moment.

In a statement to the Guardian in May, when asked why the Government had excluded Article 59 from ratification, a government spokesperson said that

“we are evaluating our approach to supporting migrant victims of domestic abuse and will make a final decision … once that is concluded.”

Have the Government also evaluated how many victims are enduring abuse at home, fearful of seeking help because the threat of deportation is being held over them by their abuser? Is their suffering being factored into the Government’s evaluation?

I should make it clear that the Government regard the victims first and foremost as victims, so of course those considerations are being taken. We are far from alone in making reservations; 25 other countries have also done so on ratification or indicated their intention to do so when signing. As I have said, we will be considering that decision in the light of the migrant victims scheme pilot evaluation, which is being looked at.

My Lords, I am pleased to hear that the Government are reconsidering the reservation. Is the Minister able to give any more clarity on a timeline for that reconsideration?

I thank my noble friend for that. We have also carefully considered the recommendations in the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s Safety Before Status report, and the follow-up report is due to be published before the end of this year. Under the terms of the Domestic Abuse Act, we have 56 days to respond to that, so the extension of the MVS pilot covers that 56 days and we will be responding within that timeframe.

My Lords, do the Government plan to include the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s definition of immigration abuse in policy and guidance on domestic abuse?

My Lords, the Government have already taken forward a number of the recommendations made in part 1 of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s Safety Before Status report. As I say, the follow-up report is due to be published soon. We have partially accepted 11 recommendations. I am happy to say that all those things will be considered in due course.

My Lords, I think the Minister will now realise that across the House there is concern because—it is important for him to acknowledge this—being safe and protected from inhuman and degrading treatment is a human right. How are the Government compliant with that obligation if the reservation on Article 59 is in place, denying access to domestic abuse support to thousands of women victims merely because of their immigration status?

I have obviously heard the tone of the House but, as I have tried to make clear, the Government are carefully considering this and will look into being able, as we hope, to withdraw the reservation in due course. It is fair and right, however, that we evaluate the reports received so far and the ones that we will be receiving shortly.

My Lords, the Government also entered into a reservation in respect of forced abortion and sterilisation. Can my noble friend the Minister explain why?

Yes, that is under Article 44. We did not consider that there was a strong case to make an exception for forced abortion or forced sterilisation. Those offences are covered by general offences of physical violence, for example ABH and GBH. We do not apply dual criminality to those offences when they are committed in normal physical violence contexts, as we know of no jurisdiction which does not have general offences of violence equivalent to ours. There is therefore no reason to take a different approach when it comes to forced abortion and forced sterilisation.

Will the Minister reassure us that the Government are going to do something about those people caught by this lack of justice while they are making up their mind? Will they be able to look back at all those people who will, while they are making up their mind, be destroyed by the gross misuse of them as human beings?

My Lords, I referred earlier to the pilot scheme being extended for a year, so I would hope that nobody will fall into the category described by the noble Lord.

Can the Minister understand why some women in this position who are concerned about their immigration status are reluctant to involve the police force, not just because of that status but because of their colour and gender?

Yes, the Government absolutely understand that. I reiterate the point that they are regarded as victims first and foremost. Essentially, the question is: why is there a firewall between police and immigration enforcement? Having considered the evidence from experts in the sector and police representatives, we did not consider that establishing a complete or time-limited data-sharing firewall between the police and the Home Office would meet the joint aims of encouraging victims of crime with insecure status to report crime while maintaining an effective immigration control.

My Lords, the Minister said that he was delighted that the Government had ratified this convention. I share his delight, notwithstanding the reservation, but can he tell the House why it took so long?

I can tell the House that if we had not introduced the reservation, it would have taken even longer. As to why it took so long, no, I do not know the answer.

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister has said that the Government are considering removing the reservation, but can he explain a little about what the problem is? He will know, of course, that Article 59 does not give blanket residence to any class of women. It just says that a competent authority should consider their circumstances and, where necessary, give this vital protection to them.

Again, as I think I have explained, the Government are assessing the evidence that is coming back from the migrant victims scheme pilot programme.

I am not entirely sure how to answer that question. With regard to the firewall, I have just given a very complete answer. I hope that goes some way to answering the noble Lord’s question.