I beg to move,
That this House notes the Women’s Aid report entitled Nineteen Child Homicides, published in January 2016; and calls on the Government to review the treatment and experiences of victims of domestic abuse in family law courts.
Let me make it clear at the beginning that I will take only two interventions at most, because this debate is heavily subscribed and I want people to have time to speak. The debate today is not really about courts, laws and statutory agencies; it is about children—or, rather, it is about children whose mothers have been subject to domestic abuse and who themselves have become victims of violent and coercive fathers. This debate, in particular, is about the 19 children who have died at the hands of their fathers over the past 10 years, all of whom had access to their children through formal or informal child contact arrangements. So with the good will of the House, I want to dedicate the first part of my speech to telling the story of Claire Throssell, my constituent:
“It took just 15 minutes on the 22nd October, 2014, for my life and heart to be broken completely beyond repair. I had warned those involved with my case that my happy, funny boys would be killed by their own father; I was right.
My boys were both with their father on that October day, and at around 6.30pm he enticed Paul, nine, and Jack, 12, up to the attic, with the promise of trains and track to build a model railway. When the boys were in the attic, he lit 16 separate fires around the house, which he had barricaded, so my sons could not get out and the firemen could not get in.
Only 15 minutes later…the doorbell rang at my mum’s. (We were staying there temporarily after the separation.)
‘It’s the boys, they must be early,’ my mum said—but I knew that wasn’t right. The boys would have run into the house and straight into my arms; they always did after a visit to their dad. They were frightened of him—he was a perpetrator of domestic abuse. The statutory agencies involved in our case knew this.
I opened the door. Blue lights were flashing.
‘There's been an incident at your former home; the boys have been involved in a fire…
Running into the hospital, the first thing I saw was Paul receiving CPR. A doctor, drenched in sweat and exhausted, told me they were withdrawing treatment.
I held Paul in my arms. I begged him to try, to stay, to not leave me.
He looked at me, smiled, and the life left his beautiful blue eyes. His hair was wet with my tears as I kissed his nose. Then Paul, my boy, was taken out of my arms and into another room. There was no further chance of touching him; his little body was now part of a serious crime enquiry.
Detectives arrived and informed me that my former husband was responsible for the fire, and that he’d also died. All this time I wasn’t allowed to see Jack, as they were still fighting to save him. Thankfully, he never knew that Paul had died. He’d tried to save his little brother.
The police later disclosed that Jack was still conscious when carried out of the fire and told them: ‘My dad did this and he did it on purpose.’ This was taken as his dying testimony.
Jack clung to life for five days but his battle was too big for him to fight. His body had suffered 56% burns. On the 27th October, he too died in my arms after suffering a cardiac arrest due to his horrific injuries.”
That is Claire’s story—it is tragic and heartbreaking, utterly heartbreaking. But I wanted that story on the parliamentary record—and now, thank God, it is—because it is the testimony of these stories, heard here in this Chamber, that will in the end engineer the changes we need to see to make sure that Claire’s story does not become another mother’s story. Before I move on to highlight what changes are required, I want to pay tribute to Claire. In my 12 years as an MP, I have never been asked to intervene in a case like this. No other case I have been presented with has touched me like this. No other constituent has impressed me so much with her bravery and her determination to secure something positive out of something so dreadful.
I want to pay tribute, too, to the people of Penistone, who responded magnificently to Claire’s tragedy. Claire’s husband cancelled the insurance on the property before he set it on fire. He also did other things, which I will not go into, that effectively left her penniless and without a home. The people of Penistone, led by our wonderful vicar at St John’s church, rallied round, raising money to buy somewhere for Claire to live and pulling together, in DIY SOS style, to make her new house into a home. In black, dreadful times such things matter, and I am incredibly proud of the people I represent in this close-knit, warm-hearted community.
Let me move on to the changes that are critical if we are to ensure that this never happens again, and to what we need to do to secure Claire’s legacy and the legacy of her children, Paul and Jack. The Women’s Aid report “Nineteen Child Homicides” was published earlier this year in response to the failure of the family courts to embed in their practice a culture of putting children first.
On that point, there should be an urgent review of family courts, because, very often, people who are giving evidence are not protected; they are actually facing their abuser. More importantly in relation to family courts, my constituent, a victim of domestic abuse, was in hospital. The abuser got custody of her children, as she was not represented in the courts. That is one reason why I say that we need an urgent review of family court practices.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. All of that is despite the fact that, in 2004, a legal framework and the accompanying guidance was produced to ensure that there was protection. That legal framework itself was a response to an earlier report by Women’s Aid “Twenty-nine child homicides”. At its heart was a recognition that the courts needed to develop a new culture of putting children first. The accompanying practice direction 12 requires courts to ensure that, where domestic abuse has occurred, any child arrangements ordered protect the safety and well-being of the child and the parent with care, and are in the best interests of the child.
In addition, in 2015, a new criminal offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship was introduced and practice 12 was amended to reflect this wider definition of domestic abuse—two developments that are potentially big steps forward.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech. I have been struck by a number of constituents and by other people whom I have met through my work in the House who have said that, as victims, when they have gone into the courts, including family courts, they have felt that they have not been believed and that those involved in the judiciary do not fully understand the patterns of domestic abuse and what to believe and who to believe in the courts. Does she agree that an important part of this is the training of the judiciary and the updating of the training to reflect changes in the law?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend.
I wish now to ask a few questions. What exactly are the failures of the family courts, given the legislative tools at their disposal? Why is it proving so difficult for the family courts to tackle this issue? Why is it so hard to put children first? I suggest that there are two major reasons. First, there is the ongoing assumption that men who are abusive towards women can nevertheless still be good fathers. That belief—that myth—is unbelievably enduring and flies in the face of the available evidence. Research indicates that there are many serious, negative impacts on children arising from domestic abuse, including children becoming aggressive or, conversely, over compliant. They can become withdrawn, anxious and fearful. One study also found that more than 34% of under-18s who had lived with domestic violence had also been abused or neglected by a parent or guardian. I do not see why that should surprise anybody. Surely, this outdated, discredited way of thinking has no place in our family courts. Surely, given the ongoing incidence of violence against children and the frequent link with domestic abuse, we need effectively to eradicate this cultural legacy from our family courts.
Secondly, there is an ongoing failure on the part of the statutory agencies and the family court judiciary to understand that domestic abuse frequently involves coercive control; abuse is about power and control. That is why it is not surprising that fathers who beat up women can also abuse children.
Physical injury is not the only manifestation of abuse and it is in that context that the courts themselves can become a tool in the armoury of a controlling abuser. In other words, when separation occurs and a woman removes herself and her children from an intolerable situation, the abusive parent frequently uses family court proceedings as a means of continuing his attempt to control and coerce.
This brings me back to Claire’s story. Her abuser exercised the ultimate control over her. Not only did he drag her to the family court for unsupervised access to his children, he went on to murder her children. In doing that, he has, with one awful, heartbreaking criminal act, exercised control over Claire for the rest of her life. That should give us pause for thought. Never again will Claire’s life be the same, as her two boys have gone. We all feel her pain, and we have a duty to act.
That is why I have worked with Women’s Aid and other MPs to secure this debate today. I pay tribute to Women’s Aid and the all-party group on domestic violence, which have produced reports that reflect on what needs to be done. I do not have time to go through their recommendations in detail. Suffice it to say that they relate to measures designed to put children first, to implement properly the legal framework and Practice 12, including the professional training of court staff and the judiciary as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) mentioned, and to put in place independent national oversight of the implementation of Practice 12. They also include practical measures, such as dedicated, safe waiting rooms for vulnerable witnesses and separate entrance and exit times.
Of course we all want to see reform of the Government’s legal aid changes to ensure that representation in the family courts is adequate and sufficient to avoid the current situation, which sees abused women cross-examined by their abusers. I know that the Minister, who has written to me separately, has indicated that the president of the family division has asked Mr Justice Cobb to review practice direction 12 to see whether amendments are needed, but we need more than that. The public needs more than that, as is indicated by the 38 Degrees petition, which has now been signed by more than 33,000 people. We need to see: the Ministry of Justice take action to ensure that the legal framework is properly implemented; practical changes to the ways the courts work; resources dedicated to ensuring the professional training of court staff and the judiciary; and the Government indicating that they will do all that is necessary to improve the relationships and the information sharing between statutory agencies and between those agencies and the family courts. There was a huge delay in the cases of Claire, Jack and Paul.
Above all else, for Claire’s sake and for the sake of all vulnerable women, we need the Government to send out a very clear message. By agreeing to act on today’s motion, the Government would be sending out a clear message that domestic abuse will be tackled, that it will be dealt with in all its forms, and that we will not allow our children to be harmed by it.
Jack and Paul must never be forgotten. Claire wanted their names to be used in the serious case review, but the authorities refused, preferring to refer to them as P2. Jack and Paul were not P2; they were two dearly loved boys whose lives were snatched away from them by a violent father. Let us make sure today that Jack and Paul will never be forgotten. Let us support the motion on the Order Paper.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I just say that I do not want to put a time limit on this debate, but we do want to bring in the next debate at about 3.30? If everybody, including those on the Front Bench, have 10 minutes including interventions, we will easily get everyone in.
I would very much like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), whose powerful testimony really set the context of this debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, and Women’s Aid for its tireless work in championing the rights of domestic abuse victims.
The basis for this debate is the findings of the Women’s Aid report, which are very disturbing indeed. The Government and the judiciary have to listen and act. Every single recommendation in the report needs to be considered. Further child deaths, such as those in the tragic case that we have just heard about, have to be prevented. The courts need to challenge themselves on their attitudes, their culture, and their practices in all domestic violence cases. We have to be clear that priority should be given to tackling domestic abuse. I think that the Government feel that it is a priority—and they have not only spoken, but acted. Coercive control is now an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2015. It is important that, as is recommended in the report, all members of the family court, the judiciary and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service have specialist training so that they understand the reality of what that new law means.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that sometimes family courts mistake fathers’ persistence over access, and their going through the courts time and again, for their taking an interest in their children, when it is intimidation and bullying of their former partner? Frighteningly, in my constituency, I have had a CAFCASS worker tell children who were afraid of their father and did not want to visit him that if they did not go, their mother would be in deep trouble, so they had to go and see him. That is shocking behaviour from any professional.
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and she is right to pick up on the complexities of coercive control. None of us should underestimate how difficult it will be for professionals truly to understand the complexities of this behaviour, but understand it they must if we are to make sure that the law is put into practice.
The House has thought long and hard about the other ways in which the Government have shown their commitment to tackling domestic violence. In particular, the Government have supported the Istanbul convention, which sets out a clear commitment to tackling domestic violence through legislation, training, and awareness-raising campaigns such as “This is abuse”. I applaud them for signing up to the convention, but when he responds, will the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), clarify when the Istanbul convention will be ratified—not just by the UK, but by other countries, such as Germany, Norway and Ireland, which, although signatories, are not ratifying the treaty? That would be an important statement of the fact that combating violence against women and domestic violence needs to be on all Governments’ agendas. We need that ratification as a way of making sure that that message is sent out, both to members of the Council of Europe and to non-members.
To tackle domestic abuse, we need victims to feel confident in our legal system, and confident that reports made will be successfully taken forward to prosecution. Those who have been abused should feel safe in making those reports. That is why I want to make two points. The first is that the Government need to be clear, and perhaps reiterate in this debate, that they support legal aid remaining in place for victims of domestic abuse and child abuse. Perhaps the Minister can update us on the Government’s work in that area, and particularly around the domestic violence gateway, which requires victims to provide objective evidence of abuse to qualify for legal aid. Ministers have made their intentions clear, in terms of the support that should be there, but in practice, some women have found it difficult to get the prescribed forms of evidence that are required in order to access the gateway. The Ministry of Justice has a review of the domestic violence gateway under way. Perhaps the Minister can say a little bit more about where we are with that review, which was urgently needed.
The all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence, of which I am vice-chair and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) is chair, has looked at the impact of court proceedings on women and children. I draw the House’s attention to our recent report, which followed a number of parliamentary hearings in which we heard from expert witnesses and individuals with personal experience of the family court system. We heard in evidence that more victims—not just women but children—are now being cross-examined by perpetrators of abuse in family court proceedings. Women’s Aid estimates that one in four women are directly questioned by a perpetrator, and the same can happen to children.
Victims should be protected when giving evidence in court. Few Members in this place can be content to see alleged abusers cross-examine those affected by domestic violence. This has to be re-examined urgently. We need to put an end to survivors of domestic abuse being cross-examined by their alleged abusers in court.
My second point is on special measures, which have already been mentioned in an intervention. In our all-party parliamentary group hearings, we heard evidence about the traumatic impact on survivors of domestic abuse of coming face to face with the perpetrator in court, yet half of all women who experience domestic violence and use the family court system have no specific protection measures available to them when they attend court. As a result, more than one in three have been verbally or physically abused by their former partner in court buildings. I find those figures shocking, given the nature of the crimes and the situations that we are talking about.
I welcome today’s announcement by my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor of additional support for vulnerable witnesses. My understanding is that victims of domestic abuse are treated as vulnerable witnesses. I hope that the Under-Secretary will confirm that those very welcome announcements will cover those who have suffered domestic abuse and violence. Specifically, an increase has been announced in the number of locations where victims and witnesses can give evidence remotely. Even more welcome are the measures allowing the pre-recording of evidence from 2017. Those measures are a real step forward, but we need to make sure that they are available not just to some victims, but to all. I am sure that Members of the House would want those reassurances today, because we need all the family courts to give witnesses and victims the support that they need. Two other important special measures in family courts are the ability to give victims and witnesses separate waiting rooms, and their ability to leave the court by separate exits. That is particularly vital for women living in refuges.
It is clear that family courts are regularly not protecting women and children in the way that we all want them to, and the way that the Government want them to. We need an end to the cross-examination of survivors of domestic violence by their alleged abusers. We need assurances that special measures will routinely be available in family court proceedings.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that what is really required is some form of witness protection scheme? We had a Bill on that many years ago.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and that might be appropriate in some cases, but I have to say that many of the people who have spoken to me about this issue simply want these very basic measures in place—things that frankly should be in place already, but are not being given the priority that they need. I know that there are pressures on the court system, and on budgets, but we have to make sure that the courts see this as a priority, and at the moment, we could be forgiven for thinking that they do not.
A third element that I would like to see is proper training for family court staff, particularly on coercive behaviour—an issue that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) spoke about eloquently. Lastly, but by no means least, there should be expert risk assessments in child contact cases when abuse is involved.
We know that the Government understand the problem. Just three months ago, the Prime Minister said at the Police Federation’s annual conference:
“Victims of abuse are still being let down”.
Improvements such as those announced today are welcome, but the change in culture is still not complete. We need the Lord Chancellor, the Under-Secretary—who is here today—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to continue to put this issue at the top of the Government’s agenda, because we need to tackle domestic abuse. We need to tackle the sort of tragic cases that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge mentioned in opening the debate. I hope that this debate will help to ensure that the issue continues to be at the top of the Government’s agenda for the rest of the Parliament.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for securing this debate and putting on record that story and her campaigning on the issue. It is so necessary that Members understand what is going on. I thank Claire Throssell for bravely being here today and for having the courage to put forward her personal tragedy, which most of us could not endure, so that that can never, ever happen to anybody else. We would be letting her sons down if we did not do that. We will remember Jack and Paul.
It is a simple but awful fact that women bear the brunt of violent crime in England and Wales. Although violent crimes against men are falling, Office for National Statistics figures for England and Wales showed that between 2009 and 2014 violence against women, perpetrated by someone they know, increased rapidly. Alongside this dramatic rise in violence, the services that women rely on to escape violence and abuse are disappearing. Between 2010 and 2012, a third of local authority funding for domestic and sexual violence services was cut, and a third of all referrals to refuges were turned away. It is also true that domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime.
On average, a woman will endure violence 35 times before making her first call to the police. Even once they have sought help and the case is going forward, women are often re-victimised and re-traumatised by the perpetrators during the prosecution process and in the family courts. One particular focus for that repeat victimisation are the fights that ensue between a victim and a perpetrator over contact with their children and the consequences of the decisions made. Sadly, this is something that women in my constituency have suffered first hand, and I am sure I am not alone in that. I shall give just one example out of the many that I could have picked.
A constituent came to me with various issues regarding custody and contact with her child. The father of her child had been extremely abusive, and these behaviours had been perpetuated by the father’s parents. Unfortunately, other legal issues on the part of the mother led to her losing custody of the child, who was placed in the care of the paternal grandparents. The mother was granted contact, but this was at the home of the paternal grandparents, who had both facilitated and taken part in abusive behaviour. The trauma experienced by the mother in order to maintain a relationship with her child was extreme. The judge in this case simply failed to understand or show any appreciation of the dynamics of domestic abuse.
This lack of understanding not only re-victimises survivors, but causes direct harm to the children. The NSPCC reports that 20% of children in the UK have witnessed domestic abuse—exposure that can cause anxiety, developmental delays and learning difficulties. Frequently, domestic abuse and child abuse co-exist. In 2015, SafeLives reported that 62% of children in households where domestic violence is perpetrated are also directly harmed. How can our family courts fail to see the inextricable link between coercive, violent and controlling behaviour perpetrated by men towards women and the threat posed to the safety of children in that family?
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many cases of domestic violence where the woman, perhaps because she has hopes of the relationship continuing, or perhaps because of intimidation or factors, does not press charges? It is important that family courts nevertheless take those allegations into account. It is not just the cases that proceed to prosecution which should be taken seriously.
I agree. We need to give victims some of the responsibility for setting the way forward, whereas our court system seems to take everything away from them and to use evidence to penalise them, rather than to support them.
How can family courts knowingly place children directly in harm’s way? That is exactly what is happening. The 2015 Women’s Aid survey of women survivors of domestic abuse who had experience of the family courts found that 76% of respondents reported that the judge granted child contact to the father, even though they knew that the children had witnessed domestic abuse. Even more terrifying, more than 44% of the survivors surveyed reported that the judge granted child contact to the father, when they knew that the children had been directly abused by the father.
Will the Minister confirm to the House that there must not be an automatic assumption of shared parenting in child contact cases where domestic abuse is a feature, but that child contact should be decided on the basis of an informed judgment of what is in the best interests of that child? Furthermore, will the Minister support the Women’s Aid recommendation that judges, staff in the family courts and other front-line staff receive specialist training on the impact of domestic abuse on children?
Finally, it is important in this debate, as it is whenever this House debates violence and abuse, that we consider how to prevent these awful crimes from happening at all. Sadly, once a survivor is forced to seek safety and forced to face her abuser in court, the damage to her and to her children has already been done. Early intervention that supports a child from the earliest possible age to recognise and develop positive and respectful relationships will prevent children from growing up believing that abusive and violent relationships are normal. It will teach boys and girls to respect themselves and others, and teach them that their body is their own and that they must determine their own lives. Does the Minister agree that mandatory, age-appropriate resilience and relationships education in schools is a necessary way to prevent domestic abuse and violence? We ought to try to prevent this horrific crime from ever occurring.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this debate, which I am happy to support, and for her incredibly powerful opening speech. It was a fantastic job to put that on the record. I congratulate Women’s Aid for its important and hard-hitting report, “Nineteen Child Homicides”, which makes for difficult reading. It is always difficult to hear such examples, but hear them we must. The individual cases show that domestic abuse is not just an abstract issue. The lives of 19 real children were cut short, another two children were seriously harmed, three mothers were killed, seven fathers subsequently committed suicide, and four fathers were convicted and imprisoned. Many more people are likely to have been directly touched by these tragic events—siblings, grandparents, surviving wives, family and friends. All those men were known to agencies. Eleven of the 12 men were known to the police as well.
A number of constituents have approached me about their custody cases. Some mothers were unhappy, some fathers felt that they had been treated badly, and grandparents felt unable to get a look-in. Whatever the rights and wrongs of those individual cases, it is clear that the right thing to do is to put the child first, at the centre of decision making.
There are many examples of good practice in family courts, including at my closest court in Croydon, but as we have heard, there is much more that can be done and lessons to be learned. In a number of cases protective screens, video links, separate waiting rooms and separate entrances are available where appropriate, but as we have heard, that does not always work. The Women’s Aid report details a survey of people who have gone through the family court system, highlighting areas of concern. Some 55% of the women said that they had no access to any protection measures in the court. Extraordinarily, 25% of the women had been cross-examined by their former partner during proceedings, including one woman who described how the man who had raped her, beaten her and abused her over a six-year period interrogated her for three hours in the court. Imagine what that poor lady must have gone through, revisiting all those experiences.
The survey reveals that 39% of the women were verbally or physically abused by their former partner while on the family court estate, 44% reported that the judge granted child contact to the father when they knew that the children had been directly abused by the father, and 76% reported that the judge granted child contact to the father when they knew that the children had witnessed domestic abuse.
I want to touch on two cases. First, I shall add a 20th child to that list—Ellie Butler, who lived her short life in Sutton in my constituency. Her parents met in a club in Sutton in March 2006. Ben Butler had a criminal record including violence, attempted robbery and intimidation of a witness. He also had a conviction for assaulting his former girlfriend. Within weeks, Jennie Gray was pregnant with Ellie.
The first time Butler was left alone with Ellie—when she was just six weeks old—she sustained minor burns to her forehead and hand. Shortly afterwards, when that was brushed off as an accident, Butler again looked after Ellie. That evening, he took her to St Helier Hospital—our local hospital—where she was diagnosed with injuries that suggested she may have been violently shaken. He was arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm, and the London Borough of Sutton started proceedings to have Ellie taken into care.
In January 2008, His Honour Judge Atkins found that Butler had been responsible for both sets of injuries and ruled out Ellie’s mother as a long-term carer. In August of that year, he awarded temporary custody to Ellie’s maternal grandparents, Neal and Linda. Butler went to prison, during which time Jennie Gray discovered she was pregnant again and hid the birth from the local authorities. In October 2009, Butler was released on bail and walked free on appeal after three judges ruled that his conviction was unsafe.
However, the quashing of the conviction did not automatically reverse the ruling that the parents were unfit to care for Ellie, so Butler went to war with the authorities, and three years later, Lady Justice Hogg made a decision that was to prove fatal for Ellie: not only did she return Ellie to her parents’ custody—brushing aside convictions, commenting that the violent behaviour that they related to was not directed at children—but went on to write in her judgment:
“It is seldom that I see a ‘happy end’ in public law proceedings. It is a joy for me to oversee the return of a child to her parents.”
Ellie’s grandfather, Neal Gray, was said to have warned her, “You will have blood on your hands,” and how prescient he was.
In addition to the judgment, Lady Justice Hogg made an order that meant that all files held by the authorities should be amended to include a prominent reference to the fact that Butler and Gray had been exonerated of any blame for Ellie’s injuries and, effectively, that they should proactively inform other agencies of Butler’s innocence. What can the agencies make of that? How can they be denied the ability to review what was happening when a clean sheet was restored to these people?
It was not long after Ellie went back that she suffered a broken shoulder. The parents sought no medical help as they sought to hide things from the authorities. Then, in October 2013, Ellie was found dead, at the hands of Ben Butler. The parents concocted a plot to cover up the real cause of death—even sending Ellie’s younger sibling to discover the body as part of the plot.
Ellie’s grandparents had not given up fighting for her. They fought hard for the custody of the two children. Unfortunately, Linda, Ellie’s grandmother, died the day the trial started, but Neil, the grandfather, continues to speak out against the ruling, which led to Sutton Council and other agencies being unable to do their job—and they did do a very good job, but with their hands tied. My heart goes out to Neil and his other grandchild. I was able to catch a moment with the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who has had to leave the debate. Both of us remain open for Neil to approach us, and we would like to support him in any way we can.
Another case is far too close to home for me. It involves someone I know very well, and the situation is ongoing, so I will not be too specific. A few years ago, Anna met someone she later discovered had two children from a previous relationship. The mother and children had ended up going to a refuge—changing their name and moving away secretly. Even though social services were closely involved, he managed to track them down within months by trawling the electoral rolls, among other things.
Anna soon found herself in a very controlling relationship—we have heard about control this afternoon—stripping her away from her family and friends. He used drugs and was violent on occasions. She eventually had a child, but the situation continued to deteriorate, affecting the child’s upbringing and stability. Anna was helped by her partner’s mother eventually to leave and start again on her own, but that was not the end. Anna found a tracker in her car. She was continually harassed and stalked, as were family members. Agencies were aware. The police were aware. She was in and out of police stations to give statements. He would pound on the door at night, jumping over the back fence and smashing the glass to get in the door.
Anna has had to learn so much for herself about the system. Her former partner has a good solicitor, and he knows how to make the best of the system—not for the child, but for the solicitor’s client. She could not apply for a non-molestation order while he was on police bail. When the police were looking to arrest him, her family could not find out whether he was actually detained, because of data protection issues.
The police have Anna on an alert list, with a promised five-minute response time. Unfortunately, the last time, it took 25 minutes. Obviously, we can understand police pressures, but the promise of a response in five minutes or 25 minutes makes all the difference when someone is trying to plan for these eventualities. At least if someone knows that it will be 25 minutes, they can try and deal with that as best they can.
Anna has the support of both families—her own and her partner’s. Her parents discovered that they were grandparents quite a long time after she was stripped from the family. They now have a wonderful, happy grandchild. Anna has become the most amazing mother in the face of such diversity, and her child is thriving. She is lucky: she could easily have found herself on the Women’s Aid list. I am so delighted that she has not, although the matter is nowhere hear closed.
Please let us do more to support the work of the groups associated with Women’s Aid. Let us do more to improve the response for people like Anna and children like Ellie. We cannot let them down. Looking at families, I know how helpless they feel in these cases. I cannot begin to imagine actually being involved at the heart of such abuse, as we heard in the case of Claire. It is really important that the police, the agencies and, of course, the family courts do everything they can—and that we work to make those agencies and family courts work—so that these tragedies cannot happen again.
I want to start on a positive note in a debate that has so far been incredibly moving—even to those who are the most battle hardened and battle weary, like myself. The positive is that, this morning, the Government released information about the protection of women’s refuges from some of the changes going ahead to housing benefit legislation, and I pay credit to the Government for finally listening on that issue.
On these matters, we must work together in the House, and the stories that we hear today have got to go some way to getting change in this area. This is now our next fight, and I think it is a fight the public are going to get pretty involved with because I believe “The Archers” is about to enter the family courts, if what Rob Titchener said at the end of the episode on Friday is anything to go by. That has done a huge amount to raise awareness of the issue, and the family courts really need some of that.
I pay huge credit to my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for Hove (Peter Kyle) and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing the debate. The testimony about Claire’s story from my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge was incredibly moving.
We have heard heartfelt and heart-breaking accounts of what is happening to victims of domestic violence in the family courts, and this debate is incredibly important for a number of reasons. The first is to send out a rallying cry to all the victims in this country and their children that, down here, in this bubble, we can hear them. The family courts in this country—for those who have never had anything to do with them, and for most of the people who have—are incredibly secretive. They are wrapped up in confidentiality, with children being called P1, P2 or X4. For that reason, the family courts get no media attention, and it is difficult to report on what goes on there. So, today, here in this place, is our chance to flood that darkness with some much-needed light to see what our institutions are really doing for the people in the UK.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is still much, much work to be done to ensure that the police get the cases to court? My constituent Louise suffered the most terrible abuse but has never had that day in court. That is not just a personal tragedy for her but a national scandal for us all.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Actually, in this place, we have some reasons to be really proud of the efforts that have been made by successive Governments, year in, year out. The laws in this country are relatively good when it comes to domestic violence. Where we fail, time and again, is in how we implement those laws. We do not need to look much further than very many reports assessing how the police handle cases of domestic violence to see that we need to do more. Sometimes, in this place, we make up laws that open an enormous door into an empty room. That is a problem for victims.
I want to say something to the victims who may be watching this. Lots of them have been in touch with me to say that they want their stories to be told and heard. The most important message, which I am sure that everybody in this place wants to say and which victims of domestic and sexual violence rarely hear, is, “We believe you.” If every single one of us could tell everybody to stand up and say those three words—“We believe you”—we could change things for victims of domestic violence, who are frequently disbelieved by every agency they are put in front of.
The second reason this debate is so important is to educate ourselves as legislators. My hon. and very dear Friend the Member for Hove and I have chatted about this subject many times over the past six months. On many occasions, he has bounded up to me and said that he has been stunned by a case that he has, as though it is the worst case in the whole world. I am sure that he will give voice to some examples of those very shocking stories. He is always so shocked, horrified and angry about every case. For me, these cases have become more expected. My years of working with victims of violence have in many ways numbed me to some of them—although I am only human.
My hon. Friend talks about her years of working with victims of domestic violence. I, too, worked in that field, and one of the things that I found most frightening was that courts tend to think of domestic violence only in terms of bruises or injury. “The Archers” has been brilliant at showing the impact of coercive and abusive behaviour, but there is an incredible naivety in believing that coercive and abusive behaviour to mothers would not also happen to children. If legal aid were available, it would be huge help to those women in protecting themselves.
I could not agree more. I will come on to the legal aid issues in a minute.
The Government have tried, through the law, to address coercive control, but we are not far enough down the line with that legislation to see whether it can deal with something so complex. To me, it is actually not that complex. We are always making the excuse that it is difficult to understand, but I do not find it difficult, so I am not sure why I am constantly cutting everybody some slack on this. We should be able to understand the constant gaslighting that goes on. “The Archers” has definitely achieved something. In the case of Henry, the small boy in “The Archers”, there is no doubt that that child has been coerced and controlled. It is harrowing; I feel chills even thinking about it.
Going back to my lovely hon. Friend the Member for Hove, on one occasion he ran up to me and said, “Jess, I just don’t understand why people are still walking around in the street. How can they carry on with their lives when this is happening? Why are they not screaming out about the awful family court system?” Today, in this place, we have a chance to help colleagues, and, most importantly, Government Members, to see what we—all of us as a country—are sanctioning in our court system. Here, in this place, we have the power and agency to change this, for every victim in the country and especially for all the victims whose children have died. We must use our agency to do what they would do in a heartbeat if they were any near as privileged as every single one of us.
On our agency to change this, I turn to the report of the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence, in conjunction with the report from Women’s Aid cited in the motion. I ask the Minister to give us some assurances about what we are going to do about this. I love warm words—I say them myself—but I want hard actions. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke and I had attempted to begin this conversation with the previous Justice Secretary. However, politics is a fickle game, and so it now falls to a fresh Justice Secretary to make her mark on the job.
It is important to state that we could be considered to be breaking the law on these issues in the UK. As a member—for now—of the European Union, we signed up to specific directives on protecting victims. One directive explicitly states that we must uphold the protection of victims within our court system and contact with offenders must be avoided. For example, all new court buildings that are built—chance would be a fine thing at the moment—must have separate waiting areas. Every day in the UK, we are breaching that law. We will hear today about victims who are not just in the same waiting area but are allowed to be cross-examined, even bullied, by the very people who have abused them for years. In the criminal courts, this would be considered a severe breach of human rights. It would also completely fly in the face of the “achieving best evidence” standards, and most likely the evidence would be thrown out.
For years, people in this place, before they came here, campaigned to have children taken into video rooms. We got partitions and separate waiting rooms: those things have all happened. A quarter of the women surveyed by Women’s Aid were found to have been directly cross-examined in the family courts by their abuser. This is increasing as a direct result of the cessation of legal aid and the rising number of citizens acting as litigants in person. When, a number of months ago, I asked the Justice Department for figures on the number of litigants in person in the civil and family courts, I was told that it does not monitor that information. Might I gently suggest to Ministers—I am in a good mood because they have done something good today—that that is simply not good enough. We have to look at the trends in what is happening in our courts.
There is a pervasive myth that family courts are unfairly biased towards mothers. I think we will hear today all sorts of examples of why that is not the case. It does not matter how many times people scale buildings dressed as Spider-Man—women are still badly treated in our family courts system. This is especially pertinent with regard to those with a history of domestic violence. The domestic violence APPG inquiry found that there is no evidence to suggest that women are favoured. On average, only 1% of applicants to family courts have access refused: only 1% are told that they can no longer see their children. Seventy per cent. of all cases in front of the family courts are victims of domestic violence. So, in 1% of 70% of all cases, people are told that they cannot see their children. In three quarters of cases where courts have ordered contact with an abusive parent, children suffer further abuse. Some children have even been ordered to have contact with a parent who has committed offences against the children themselves. As we have heard, children have even been killed as a result of residency arrangements.
I want to stress that an abusive partner can force a victim into the family court, or in fact any civil court in the UK, as many times as they like. This is not a judgment that they get handed down, their case falls, and then they do not get another bite at the cherry—they can go to court as many times as they like. They can chase a woman around the country making the same claim against her, and nothing will stop that. There is no doubt that in many cases violent perpetrators use the family court system not to get their children back but to continue stalking and continue a reign of terror.
The domestic violence APPG has seven recommendations that would dramatically improve the lives of women. They fall almost exclusively in line with the report from Women’s Aid. We want to see victims and children protected and respected in our courts—at the very least to the same level that we have in our criminal courts. I have a copy of the recommendations that I can hand over to Ministers today. I really hope that they will listen to what they are hearing and act, as some of their colleagues have today, to do the right thing.
I congratulate my hon. Friends on bringing this debate to the Floor of the House of Commons. I acknowledge Women’s Aid for the protection and support it provides to women and children, and for all the vital work it does to highlight the suffering caused by domestic violence. In particular, I pay tribute to Denise and all her staff at Grimsby Women’s Aid, and all the women I have met there. They are amazing and, despite some real tragedies and difficulties, they continue to face life with bravery and extraordinary good humour.
Several victims of domestic violence have come to my surgeries in Grimsby looking for help because they feel they have been let down. They feel that the whole system is stacked against them. They are the ones who have to move out of the area they lived in. They are the ones who have to provide the burden of proof; that all falls on them. They are the ones whose parenting is constantly questioned. They are the ones who live in fear of abuse and in fear of losing their children. They are the victims, but too often they feel that they are treated with suspicion rather than compassion, and that they are made to feel as though they are the guilty party.
The way in which family courts operate reveals a real lack of understanding of the situation in which victims of domestic violence find themselves. As we have heard in so many testimonies today, victims clearly should not have to share a waiting room with their abuser, and they should not have to face cross-questioning from them. As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who has just left her place, mentioned earlier, it is too difficult for individuals to be faced with their abuser in a small space.
I want to thank Rochelle, one of my constituents, for allowing me to use her name—in fact, she was insistent that I use it—to highlight her very personal and individual difficulties, which represent the difficulties of so many women. She fled her abusive partner, yet she has been forced to face him in court several times during the last six years. He is using the court system to gain access to her, and as a means of getting around the restraining order. The courts have failed to provide security at their meetings. She has been made to sit at the same table as her former partner in a small room, and he has taken such opportunities to make horrendous sexually derogatory comments to her. This man had twice put her in hospital while she was pregnant. She should never have to be in the same room as him again, but she feels that the family court forced her back into the perpetrator’s presence and under his control. In addition, she has had no access to social housing, because the local authority deemed her to have made herself intentionally homeless, after having fled her home. That is incredibly common. As we have heard, she is not alone in being in such a situation.
I thank my hon. Friend for her speech. She has highlighted a very important issue, which has certainly become increasingly apparent to me from my casework, about the training given to local authority teams—sometimes in social services and sometimes in housing—that deal with family issues involving domestic violence or domestic abuse. Does she agree with me about the importance of awareness, training and leadership in local authorities on such issues?
Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend that training plays a big part, and there is a lot more that could be done with cross-agency working and understanding.
When I visited a school in my constituency recently, I was really shocked to hear a support worker—she has worked in a school for nearly 30 years, and lives in the community in which she works—say she believed that about one in five children at that school were in families that had experienced domestic violence. The figure is shocking in itself. On the positive side, however, she said it was very important in a school environment that children should feel they have a safe space, where they feel they have good relationships with and can open up to the staff. My hon. Friend’s point about training applies to schools as well.
I believe that a lot of this is unreported violence. Will the Government consider how they can give people greater confidence in the system? People also need to recognise violence in the household as a problem. I think some people accept it as part of a volatile relationship and may not even recognise it as domestic violence. That is where the coercive element also comes in. That makes me believe all the more that good relationships education in schools can help children to realise that those are not normal relationships, and that that is not how loved ones behave towards one another.
Before the summer, I tabled some parliamentary questions relating to the effect of domestic violence on the children who are subject to it or who witness it, and I am very concerned that the Government do not seem to be sufficiently interested in that subject. I asked how many children the Government estimate live in homes where domestic violence occurs, and how they believe the educational attainment of children who experience domestic violence is affected. The answers I received from the Department for Education stated that, although it counts the number of referrals to children’s social care in which domestic violence is a factor, its figures do not include all children who experience domestic violence, and it does not publish attainment data for children who have been referred. Would not greater cross-departmental work ensure that domestic violence is better understood, highlighted and prevented? I worry that those answers show a lack of urgency in tackling this problem.
Finally, and quickly, I want to raise an issue that another constituent brought to me in relation to the Concentrix debacle that is currently being uncovered. A women with two children had her tax credit money stopped two weeks ago because she had been subject to a random check. She was told she was suspected of living with a partner. Concentrix would not disclose the name of the person it suspected to be living with her, and it would not make any home visits. She is a single parent, and she has been left to evidence the fact that she is single. She has now been forced to use food banks and to have meals at her parents’ house, and she has received assistance with her children’s school uniform costs. This is particularly difficult because my constituent is a victim of domestic violence. She has had to set up her life again from scratch to make sure that she and her children are safe. Again, it feels as though the state and all the agencies involved are working against her having a fresh start.
The lack of sensitivity, awareness and preparedness across state agencies—from the welfare system to family courts, as well as the police and the education system—lets down children and victims of domestic violence, and leaves them feeling as though the whole system is working against them.
May I join the chorus of approval and gratitude expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for securing this debate? Not only did she give a voice so effectively to a family who so desperately wanted that to be done, but she set a tone for this debate that is very much appreciated by all of us following her. I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who spoke brilliantly. She joined in making a pitch for this debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who was present for the pitch for this debate. As a member of the Backbench Business Committee, she could not join in with it, but I could tell from her unrestrained facial expressions that she was offering support in many other ways during the process. Those Members and others in the Chamber today have championed victims of domestic abuse in Parliament, in Government and on the front line respectively. Together, they bring a wealth of advocacy experience to this debate.
I must admit, with some shame, that I came to realise the true brutal horror of domestic violence only relatively recently, when I became a Member of Parliament. Shortly after the election last year, I was in my office sifting through the rubble of my campaign, when a women walked in and asked if I was her new Member of Parliament. When I said yes, she told me that she had just fled her partner, after suffering the latest in a long series of very brutal attacks. She sat, bruised and shaking, and said that she was ready to move on, but that she needed help. She did not trust the police, so she had turned to me. That was my first experience of someone turning to me for help as an MP, and it was the first time I had sat down with a survivor of domestic abuse.
Since that time, I have got to know many women who have survived violent relationships, and I have tried my best to be the best advocate I can for them. It is through meeting and listening to survivors that I first came to understand how our family courts are being used to perpetuate abuse against extremely vulnerable women. Eighteen months ago, I did not know that a convicted criminal could represent himself and cross-examine the victims of his crimes over and over again by using the family courts. How could I get to this age and not know that? Why is it that so few people I talk to have the faintest idea this is going on daily in the British legal system?
One constituent I am in regular contact with has been cross-examined by her former partner on three separate occasions. The man who beat her, broke her bones, battered her unconscious and hospitalised her, and who was convicted for his crimes, still has the right to summon his victim to court for a spurious custody hearing. He will never win the case, but that is not the point—he is victorious the second he steps into the courtroom, because in that instant he gets exactly what he wants, which is to continue to inflict violence and abuse on a woman who has already suffered more than most of us could ever imagine.
Is it not important for the courts to understand that they are being manipulated in that way? The courts ought to record how often an abuser deliberately uses the courts to inflict further abuse. Concentrix should also be aware that when it receives reports of an unreported adult being in the home, it may well be the abuser carrying on the abuse by making false reports. It should take action to investigate that before it cuts off the benefits.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The fact that many of the men who inflict this violence are not only extremely manipulative, but extremely careful in the way they manipulate people and systems, means that far more effort should be put into understanding the victims, who can explain the type of behaviour the courts are dealing with. If we did that, a lot of heartbreak and violence would be avoided.
Another constituent told me that she was shaking so violently after a family court hearing that she had to be assisted to the taxi. Soon after leaving, the taxi had to stop to allow her to open a door and vomit.
Those of us who have not experienced it cannot comprehend the fear that survivors suffer. It is all-encompassing and ever present. The prospect of seeing the man who reigned with such terror causes paralysis. The faintest possibility that the abuser could get access to personal details—addresses, bank account numbers or even medical records—is overwhelming. What is most grotesque is that abusers know this. They know that the family courts can be used to torment their victims, and in some cases they do so with unrelenting brutality. When one listens to survivors describing their experiences of being summonsed, approaching the hearing date, being cross-examined by their abuser and dealing with the aftermath, one simple truth is inescapable: the language and vocabulary with which they describe their family court experience is identical to how they describe the violence they experienced in the relationship they bravely escaped.
It should shock everyone that the family courts are being used in a way that inflicts, not ends, violence against women. Worst of all, from the abuser’s perspective, it works. One constituent told me last month that she was dropping harassment charges because there was a good chance that her abuser would gain access to her mental health files because he had chosen to represent himself. She could not bear the thought of him reading, and being gratified by, such intimate and personal information. Another told me that she simply could not face another cross-examination by her convicted abuser. She had been medicated in order to endure her last experience, and the recovery from it took weeks. She told me that if he tried again, she would capitulate and give him whatever he demanded simply to avoid the experience. She said:
“I simply do not have it in me to survive another cross examination”.
If there is one example that sums up the sheer horror of abuse and its continuation in the family court, it is that of Jane Clough. Jane was in an abusive and violent relationship until she finally took action and went to the police. Her ex-partner, Jonathan Vass, appeared in court charged with nine counts of rape, one of sexual assault and three counts of common assault. Some of this had taken place while Jane was heavily pregnant with his child. Inexplicably, Judge Simon Newell decided that Vass was not a threat and freed him on bail.
Jane lived in so much fear that she moved in with her parents for comfort and protection. Vass eventually found out where Jane was working and, in July 2010, he attacked her as she headed home from work. He stabbed her 19 times and then slashed her throat—wounds from which she died. The next day, he was arrested approaching Jane’s parents’ home. He was on his way to murder either his baby child or Jane’s parents, or both.
I have had the honour of talking to Jane’s parents and sister. They are a family whose grace and dignity shine above the horror they have endured. However, there is more to this terrible episode and they are desperate for people to hear about it and learn from it. Once in prison, Vass began demanding parental rights over his child. This was the child whose mother he had beaten and murdered, and the child he would, in all likelihood, have murdered if only he had had the opportunity. None of us can imagine the pain this caused Jane’s family, but it gets worse still.
Jane’s sister began adoption proceedings in order to break the link with Vass. From that moment onwards, the family experienced a legal system that was stacked in his favour, rather than the baby he had tried to kill. Without access to financial support or legal aid, the family had to find separate representation for the baby and the rest of the family. Had a legal firm not donated pro bono representation, they would have had to sell their house to cover the costs.
A five-day hearing was scheduled in the family court, and the family were informed that Vass had exercised his right to self-representation. The man who had brutally murdered their sister and daughter would be cross-examining them. Jane’s sister told me that she simply cannot find the words to do justice to the brutalising effect this had on her as the court date approached. On the day of the hearing, they were informed that he would be appearing by video link, but they were stunned to discover that this was because of concerns for his safety and had nothing at all to do with the wellbeing of the family. As Jane’s sister told me,
“It was so shocking. It was all about him—what was best for him, how best to protect his rights. Nothing was balanced against our rights.”
During the cross-examination, Vass asked personal questions of the family members. He asked Jane’s sister, in reference to the baby,
“What will you tell her about me?”.
He asked her husband:
“What makes you think you can be a dad to my daughter?”.
The trauma meted out by the family court process is simply inhuman. This family had suffered enough.
The family have asked me to pass on their thanks to two advocates who have made a difference to them during and since these terrible events. The first is Dame Louise Casey who, as Victims Commissioner, learned from their experiences and took steps towards greater recognition for victims in the family court. The second is my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who joins us here today. As Director of Public Prosecutions, he got to know the family well and they speak in the highest possible terms of him and his advocacy for them.
Progress has been made, but it has been glacial. We have not seen the transformation that is desperately needed. The abuse and brutalisation of women and families is being perpetuated via our legal system. To abusers, the family court is simply another tool through which to extend their hate, their violence and their control of extremely vulnerable women—exactly the kind of people the state exists to protect. Every day that these practices are allowed to continue, shame is heaped on our system of justice, on this House and on our Government, because we have the power to stop this happening and yet it continues.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for securing this important debate and for her moving speech. I pay tribute to the other Members who have shared moving stories of their constituents’ experiences.
I commend Women’s Aid for the publication of the “Nineteen Child Homicides” report. It makes for harrowing reading, but as legislators, we must not stay silent on the issues it raises and we must speak up for the children whose safety, wellbeing and lives are being put at risk by unsafe and poorly risk-assessed contact with parents who are known perpetrators of domestic abuse. The fact that over the past 10 years in England and Wales 19 children have been murdered, two mothers have been murdered, two further children have faced attempts on their lives and seven fathers have killed themselves after killing their children indicates that there are systemic shortcomings in the approach to family contact that need to be addressed.
I wish I could stand here and say that all is rosy in Scotland, but in reality we face very similar challenges. Obviously, we have always had a distinct legal system, and since devolution the Scottish Parliament has had responsibility for legislation and policy in this area. In some respects, we have a fairly robust legislative framework, but its application sometimes falls very far short and we know that there is a lot more to do. I am glad that Nicola Sturgeon announced last week that a new domestic abuse Bill will be part of the new programme for Government. There is recognition that psychological abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour can be hard to address under our existing laws, and proposed new legislation will seek to put that right.
As understanding of coercive control has grown, however, it has given rise to difficult questions about child contact arrangements and the extent to which abusers can use them and court procedures to continue to exert control over a former partner and their children. The underlying issues on both sides of the border are very similar, and I want to highlight the shortcomings in the implementation of our existing legislation and identify those areas where new legislation or regulatory guidance could strengthen the safety and wellbeing of children and limit the opportunities for former partners to perpetrate further harm.
Section 24 of the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 refers to orders made under section 11 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, and rightly puts child welfare and children’s interests as a priority. The law states clearly that when a court is considering the welfare of a child in relation to parental rights and responsibilities, it must take into account the need to protect the child from any abuse, or risk of abuse, that affects, or might affect, the child. It also states that courts must take into account the effect such abuse, or risk of abuse, might have on the ability of the person who has carried out the abuse to care for, or meet the needs of, the child, and the effect that any abuse might have on the person carrying out those responsibilities.
When a parent raises an action for contact or residence for their child, the court is also under a statutory duty to give the child the opportunity to express his or her views,
“taking account of the child’s age and maturity”,
and it has to
“have regard for such views”
as he or she may express, giving them due weight relative against the child’s age and maturity. That ensures that the legislation complies with article 12.2 of the UN convention on the rights of the child.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, however, that is not how it always works in practice. I fear that the law is not being consistently applied; that it can still prioritise the rights of a parent with a history of violence over the wishes of children; and that it takes inadequate account of their safety and scant account of the safety of the parent with care.
Earlier this week, Edinburgh University hosted a conference that grappled with some of the difficult issues regarding child contact. I was not able to attend, but one of the keynote presentations was made by the Rev. Tracey Hart, who last October was sentenced to 12 months in jail for contempt of court, having been accused of attempting to keep her children away from their father, who press reports suggest is a convicted murderer with a history of violence. Ms Hart spent eight days in jail before being freed on appeal. The Appeal Court judges ruled that the sentence was “incompetent” and said that she should never have been convicted in the first place, much less jailed.
What disturbs me most is that not one, but two sheriffs were involved in those outrageous proceedings. That brings home to me that we are still battling vestiges of an institutional and attitudinal culture where the dynamics of coercive control are very poorly understood; where the impact of domestic abuse is underestimated; and where the voices of children are diminished. The experience of Tracey Hart and her children suggests that, in some parts of our judiciary, parental rights still override the wellbeing and safety of children. Children’s own rights to have their voices heard and respected are not taken seriously enough, and mothers who seek to protect themselves and their children form abusive and dangerous former partners are still seen in some quarters as bitter or vindictive troublemakers. Despite the law being unambiguous, we still seem to have some way to go to ensure that all sheriffs are properly equipped to preside over such cases.
Tracey Hart has been extremely brave in speaking out, but another troubling issue that arises from her experience is the extent to which court processes and the child contact arrangements ordered by courts can be used by abusive ex-partners to continue to perpetrate abuse. That point very much echoes the comments of previous speakers. We need to ask whether contact arrangements are sufficiently robust in protecting families form further abuse, and to find ways to prevent contact from becoming the vehicle through which an abusive ex can continue to abuse their former partner. We need to look at how contact is properly risk-assessed; how staff in courts and contact centres are trained to spot signs of controlling and manipulative behaviour; how a safe environment is maintained; whether new regulator guidance needs to be introduced; and how we can really put the interests of the child at the heart of decisions.
At the moment, there is a presumption that contact with parents is a good thing, but if a parent has a history of violence and abuse, is that really the case? I do not think that we have yet got the balance right. Tracey Hart says that her children were reluctant to spend time with their father. A psychiatrist’s assessment of her children indicated that contact was damaging their mental health, and she describes her elder son even vomiting before a contact session. But those children were still compelled to attend sessions and cajoled by staff into spending time with their father when they did not want to do so.
Frankly, that is just not good enough. We need to ensure that all parts of these islands become a safer place for those fleeing domestic abuse. It is incumbent on every single one of us to name these abuses of power for exactly what they are, and to speak out on behalf of those whose lives are damaged and endangered under present approaches. We can and must do much better. I hope that Ministers are listening and that we will do so.
Before I begin my speech, I would like to pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee for bringing this debate forward, and to other hon. Members for the moving testimony we have heard today, particularly the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who told us harrowing tales of their experience with constituents.
This extremely important debate follows in the wake of the publication of the Women’s Aid report, “Nineteen Child Homicides”. There is no doubt that much more reflection and circumspection is required on the experiences of those who have been subject to domestic abuse and how they are treated in family courts.
“Nineteen Child Homicides” tells the tragic and appalling stories of 19 children, all intentionally killed by a parent who was also a known perpetrator of domestic abuse, over a 10-year period. Those killings were made possible by unsafe child contact arrangements, both formal and informal. Shockingly, the report uncovers a range of concerns with the system of managing child contact, including routine failings to follow legal protocols and a lack of professional understanding of the power and control dynamics of abuse.
Domestic abuse itself has not been a criminal offence, so single incidents are prosecuted under a range of offences, such as common assault or rape, although there is a new criminal offence in England of coercive control. However, because it may prove difficult to prosecute that kind of abuse in a court of law, the First Minister has announced a new domestic abuse Bill as part of the Scottish Government’s programme, putting Scotland at the forefront of nations in tackling the true nature of domestic abuse. The Bill will criminalise psychological abuse and provide a range of associated measures to modernise the justice system and how it responds to domestic abuse. The issue is being debated in the Scottish Parliament this very day.
Although it is clear that domestic abuse is under-reported, there is a growing understanding of the damaging impact that non-physical forms of abuse can have on those who are subject to it. They include methods of control and even threats to harm others, including children.
In Scotland, the creation of a new offence of domestic abuse is an extremely important development, and I urge the Minister to reflect carefully on it. Creating the offence has the potential to have a significant impact on how society views domestic abuse, by ensuring that there is clarity about what is unacceptable under the law. That will make the efforts of the police and prosecution services much more effective in dealing with domestic abusers. Importantly, it will also bring clarity to those who have been subjected to domestic abuse that the justice system is focused on their needs and those of their children. Protecting people in abusive relationships, and their children, which we have heard so much about today, must be the overriding objective.
We spend a lot of time in this Chamber talking about children’s literacy and education and, indeed, even their obesity levels, but before we can tackle any of those issues we must ensure that sufficient measures are put in place to keep them safe from harm—even, when necessary, from an abusive parent; family courts must be mindful of that.
Where domestic abuse is an issue, it has to be presumed that contact with the abusive parent is not in the best interests of the child or the non-abusive parent who could be required to leave them in considerable danger. It is important that the family courts consider the parenting capacity of the abusive parent and the likely impact of past and future abuse on their ability to parent their child safely and on the safety of the non-abusive parent.
It is absolutely vital that family courts prevent further child deaths by always putting children first in family courts. This really requires something of a cultural change within the family court system to ensure that the safety and wellbeing of children and non- abusive parents is understood and consistently prioritised. We have heard plenty of cases today in which that has apparently not been the case. Where a partner is in an abusive relationship, children in the household are not safe either. That is an obvious reality towards which all the evidence points.
I would urge the Minister to look carefully at the measures being put forward by the First Minister in Scotland. It does not matter from where Governments learn or which examples they follow; the only thing that matters is that lives are improved or, as we have heard today, that lives are saved, most specifically the lives of children. The “Nineteen Child Homicides” report should give us all pause for thought. One child killed by a parent or carer is one child too many. These children have no voice; we must be their voice. We must ensure that our justice systems—in all corners of Scotland and all corners of the United Kingdom—serve our children well and keep them safe.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this important debate, and by paying tribute to her constituent, Claire Throssell. As a Sheffield resident, I well remember hearing the shocking news of the murder of her two sons, Jack and Paul, and being horrified to find that this came at the hands of their own father—a man known to the authorities for his history of domestic violence. I am inspired by the bravery Claire has shown since that tragedy in working with Women’s Aid to raise awareness and push for change in the way that the family courts operate. I am pleased to see so many Members joining in her struggle in today’s debate.
Sadly, what happened to Claire’s sons was not an isolated event. As we have heard, between 2005 and 2015, 19 children in 12 families were killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse. All the perpetrators were fathers to the children that they killed. All of them had access to their children through formal or informal child contact arrangements. As the Women’s Aid report makes clear, the blame for these deaths lies solely with the abusive fathers who killed their children. The failures of the family court system do not in any way detract from that.
Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that, when it comes to cases involving domestic abuse, the family courts too often fail to put the safety of children and abused partners first, potentially exposing them to further risk. The Ministry of Justice practice direction 12J, “Child Arrangements and Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm”, puts a clear onus on the family courts to put the safety and best interests of the child first when considering child arrangement orders in cases where domestic violence or abuse has occurred. This guidance, one would think, is simple common sense. Unfortunately, it is not always properly implemented.
Family courts understandably take the view that a child should have sustained contact with both parents. Clearly, in the majority of cases, this could be the desired outcome. The problem arises in many cases where domestic violence is a factor—where contact with an abusive parent is likely to lead to further harm to the child, but that is outweighed by the perceived importance of maintaining contact with both mother and father. In other words, the belief is that a child’s best interests are to have safe contact with both parents. Although that is usually the case, it has become an article of faith from which family courts find it difficult to deviate, even for the child’s own safety.
What is more, this skewing of priorities is encouraged in part by legislation. The Children and Families Act 2014 enshrines in law the principle that contact with both parents is best for children. As I say, while this is certainly the case for the majority, it does not recognise that, in circumstances where a parent has a history of domestic violence, such contact can put the child in harm’s way.
Whenever there are allegations of domestic abuse, there must be a serious assessment, authorised by the court and carried out by experts, of the implications for the child’s and the non-abusive parent’s safety. For too long, the abuse of a partner and the safety of children have been viewed as two separate matters by the courts. We must encourage a courtroom culture that views them as part of the same issue.
Women’s Aid is calling for national oversight of the implementation of practice direction 12J, and I urge the Minister to look carefully at how we can bring about a shift in the thinking of the family courts so that child safety is put back at its heart. It is not just the decisions of the family courts that are in need of scrutiny, but their working practices, too. While victims of domestic abuse can be provided with a number of protections when in criminal court, such as giving evidence from behind a screen or through a video link, these are not available in family court.
On top of that, thanks to the Government’s cuts to legal aid, more and more people going to family court are forced, through lack of funds, to represent themselves rather than take on a solicitor. The National Audit Office estimates that there has been an 80% increase in the number of cases taken to the family courts where one of the parties is not represented by a legal professional, and a 30% increase in cases where neither party has such representation.
The upshot of all this is that it is increasingly common for victims of domestic abuse not only to have to face their abusers in court, but to be directly questioned by them as well. Thankfully, there is a greater understanding now than there was in the past that abuse within relationships does not only take the form of physical violence. We know that intimidation and coercion are just as much a feature. It takes a great deal of courage for those suffering from domestic abuse to break free from these relationships, and we must ensure that they are offered all the support and encouragement that can be mustered. What they should not have to put up with is facing their abuser’s questioning directly in court, and being placed in a position in which the intimidation they have escaped from is inflicted on them once again.
The protection that applies to criminal courts should likewise apply to family courts, and I trust that the Minster will take some time to reflect on the ordeal that appearing in these courts so often is for the victims of abuse. Above all, I urge the Minister to instigate a full review, as other hon. Members have called for, based on the reports submitted by Women’s Aid and the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence. We must ensure that Jack and Paul and all other victims are never forgotten.
I pay huge credit to all the speakers who preceded me in the debate, particularly the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who spoke about the heart-breaking case of her constituent, Claire Throssell. I am absolutely in awe of her strength and her dignity in the face of unimaginable trauma. I am glad that we can be part of putting Jack and Paul’s names on the record today. I would also like to pay tribute to the amazing women’s aid organisations across these islands, particularly Scottish Women’s Aid, which assisted me in preparing for this debate and works daily to support women and families through the ordeal of domestic abuse. It has told me that child contact issues are still a huge problem. I also pay credit to Glasgow women’s aid and the Glasgow rape crisis centre for the work they do to support women, which includes going through the court process. I long for the day—I am sure we all do—when women and children can live their lives without fear, but until then I am glad that these organisations and their committed staff and volunteers continue to carry out their vital, life-saving work.
The Scottish Government are responsible for child protection in Scotland. Members may be aware that a debate is also happening in the Scottish Parliament today on the proposed new domestic abuse legislation, building on the excellent work of the Equally Safe strategy. There is ongoing work from the Equally Safe group on all areas of gender- based violence. I commend all partners involved for continuing to strive to make improvements in policy in Scotland.
The proposed Bill in Scotland will create a new offence of domestic abuse. It will include criminalisation of psychological abuse such as coercive and controlling behaviour, which can be difficult to deal with under existing laws. It will also ensure appropriate penalties are available to deal with domestic abusers, and it will provide a range of associated measures to modernise the justice system to respond to domestic abuse.
In Scotland, we already have the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 which allows special measures in courts, automatically in criminal cases and by application in civil cases. That can be very important. I have spoken to a number of the organisations involved in this, and it does help hugely to have these measures in place.
The basis for the system is good, but, sadly, Scotland is not immune from the difficulties described in this debate. Our court processes are not yet perfect, and this is reflected in the lived experiences of women and children going through this system. Scottish Women’s Aid tells me it remains concerned by the situation in the courts, where women are not believed and their experience of domestic abuse is downplayed. The significance of being able to tell your story and be believed is huge. Women are consistently undermined by abuse, their confidence shattered. Even getting as far as going to court is a massive ordeal. For the legal process then to remove any last part of dignity a woman has is unforgivable.
As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge and others have mentioned, there also exists an artificial separation between an abuser’s actions and their ability to carry out their role as a parent. It would seem entirely logical to most people that if someone is of a mind to abuse, threaten, undermine, rape and control their partner, their ability to care appropriately for their children would come into question. That is not always the case, however, and the notion that a court would decree that contact with a parent who has demonstrated their capacity for violence is more important than the safety of that child terrifies me. I have had testimony sent to me by Women Against Rape in that respect, which in the interests of time I will post on Twitter later.
The prospect of having to deal regularly with an abusive ex-partner is incredibly daunting. Scottish Women’s Aid has said to me that the court process
“denies women and children their right to be protected and recover from abuse. The processes and decisions in our…courts are guilty of re-victimisation.”
This issue of re-victimisation is very important and needs to be looked at right across government—right across the practices we have. Concentrix was mentioned earlier, and the fact that it puts people in a position where they are being re-victimised. Benefits tribunals can put people in that situation, too, where their experiences are called into question. The Department for Work and Pensions is in that position as well. I will mention here, as I have mentioned many times before, the issue of universal credit and household payments. I will also mention the two-child policy and the rape clause. That a Government Minister, Lord Freud, could tell me in a meeting that he thought women suffering from domestic abuse should just flee is deeply worrying, and the Government need to reflect right across government on how we value women and children and how we make sure they are protected in every aspect of their lives.
The views of children must be taken into account, too, because they experience the trauma of domestic abuse and can carry that through their whole lives. Their voices are not always heard as they should be. A new project, Power Up; Power Down, is currently under way with Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People in partnership with Scottish Women’s Aid. Looking at this in that way has the potential to change how court processes are carried out, to allow young people’s voices to be heard, and to allow them the chance to determine what would make them feel safest, and what their needs and desires actually are. They do not want to be put in a position where they are in fear of their lives, and where they worry about the impact on their mother of their going to visit an abusive parent.
Finally, I would like to read from a card from the Recounting Women project, which Scottish Women’s Aid and other women’s aid agencies in Scotland have carried out. It is a participatory photo-voice project allowing women to share their personal experiences of domestic abuse and it is available online as well:
“This is the Sheriff Court where I experienced so much injustice, including unsupervised visits and Bar Reports that weren’t fair for me and my children. How much abuse can a father do to a child that puts his children out on the street, changes the locks, puts their clothes outside in bin bags. Then they force the children to see their dad while I'm trying to help them forget the trauma.”
I ask Ministers to reflect on this, and for us all to reflect right across government on how we can help women and children to be safe.
I, too, congratulate those who secured this debate and everybody who has spent so long working on this issue—in particular, the all-party group on domestic violence and Women’s Aid on raising the issue of how domestic violence cases are dealt with in the family courts. The statistics and examples of domestic abuse, some of which have been given this afternoon, are so continually shocking that we have a duty to come back to this debate over and again.
I do not intend to repeat anything anybody has already said. I want to address two issues: first, what has been happening in the criminal courts to make the position better, and to raise the question of why some of that has not been done in the family courts; and secondly, to go to the question of abuse of process, where individuals are clearly using the civil courts for a purpose they were not intended for.
The criminal courts are not perfect. There are all sorts of problems still with our criminal courts in dealing with domestic abuse, but anybody who has worked on this—people across the House have done so—will recognise that real strides have been made that make a real difference in relation to the criminal approach over the past 10 to 15 years. I want to outline why I think that has happened, because this is a time to reflect on the processes in the family courts and to see whether some of that can be replicated.
The first thing that happened was that we began to count the cases. Back in 2002-03, nobody knew how many domestic abuse cases were going into the criminal court, so we could not begin to have a policy or strategy. We started counting the cases, and if the number of cases where litigants in person before family courts is not being counted now, that needs to start, and we need to understand how many of them may be victims of domestic abuse. So counting is the starting point.
We then need a policy to understand, so that everybody who plays a part in the process has a policy that helps them make the right decisions in the area they are responsible for. That happened in the criminal process about 10 or 12 years ago—those policies began to be rolled out, and they have been improved over the years. A policy on its own does not do the job, so we need a strategy, too, that makes it clear what we are trying to achieve and is proactive and forces things to change. We also need leadership: people who are prepared to go out there and say, “We’re going to change what’s going to happen.” All that has helped in the criminal sphere, with lots of different people leading in different ways. When we put it all together, it is clear the position has undoubtedly changed, so that it is now unrecognisable.
I will go through some of the features. Independent domestic violence advisers and independent sexual advisers are extremely good and are relied on by victims to help them through that part of the process. Specialist courts for domestic violence made a real difference, where everybody in the courtroom was trained and understood the issues; there were separate courts and lists, and the environment made it easier to deal with domestic violence cases. There was better co-ordination and support, with groups like Women’s Aid and many others out there to provide the support victims need for the journey they were going to go through in the criminal courts. And then there were practical measures that took the strain off the victim.
It is particularly important for a 999 tape, recording the person who phones the police to report what is happening, always to be secured, and for a police officer to arrive at the scene wearing a body cam. Those two bits of evidence will secure a conviction in almost every case of domestic abuse. It is amazing that they are still not the norm even in the criminal sphere. With the 999 tape and the body cam, it will almost certainly be possible to prove a case without putting a strain on the victim by requiring him or her to make that case in court.
Then there are special measures. When I went along to the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and heard some of the evidence about family courts, I was struck by the fact that what I was hearing simply would not be tolerated in the criminal courts any more. Special measures are a norm in the criminal courts, and it would be thought to be the duty of the prosecution, the defence and the court to ensure that they are in place.
Some of the changes that have taken place have undoubtedly improved the situation in the criminal courts, although I am not pretending that it is perfect, and I am not suggesting that there is not much more to be done. I think that those improvements came about because a number of individuals decided to listen to what people were saying to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) mentioned the terrible case of Jane Clough. Her parents, Penny and John, came to see me, and I just sat down for the afternoon and let them tell me what had happened to them during their journey through our courts. It reflected on the organisation that I was running and it reflected on the criminal justice system, of which I am very proud, but I listened, and other people listened. We need to listen, and that is why today’s debate is so important.
We also need to be non-defensive. In my experience of criminal justice, the moment our organisation or system is criticised, we circle the wagons and try to protect what we think is good, rather than accepting that it might not be so good. It is necessary to listen, to give a non-defensive, open response, and then to have an absolute determination to change things. Jane’s parents asked me to go with them on a journey to change some of the things that had gone wrong for them, and I am proud to call them friends and co-advocates on that continuing journey.
There are real lessons to be learnt, and when I say that I look, obviously, to the Government Front Bench. There are lessons to be learnt about what has happened in the world of criminal justice in the last 15 years and to ask searching questions about why some of that cannot be replicated in family and other courts—starting, as I have said, with listening, non-defensiveness and an absolute commitment to change.
The second point that I want to make concerns the abuse of process, an issue that I think is rising on the agenda. Perpetrators of domestic abuse use our courts—both criminal and civil, but it is on the civil courts that the torch has not been shone—to continue the perpetration of control and harassment of victims. I pay tribute to Claire Waxman, herself a victim of harassment. She and Voice4Victims have raised this issue on numerous occasions.
There are two types of abuse of process. First, there are the individuals who bring proceedings in which they have no legitimate interest: they are doing it simply to ensure that the person whom they have been stalking or harassing is forced to come to court to strike out their claim. Because these are people with no legitimate interest, the courts will strike out the claim when they get to grips with it, as a vexatious claim. However, the victim will have to go to court to argue that it is vexatious, and that is all that the perpetrator wants: for that person to come to court. That is what happened to Claire Waxman, and it has happened to other victims.
This problem could be solved by Christmas. Again, I am looking straight across at the Government Front Bench. It ought to be possible for someone working for the senior judiciary to devise a way to ensure that such cases are subject to a special strike-out procedure that does not require the victim to go to court and take the initiative, and some third party does it instead. I honestly think that a month or two of hard work, and some real courage and determination, could produce a system whereby a practice direction could be issued and the problem could be put to one side.
The second type of abuse of process is more difficult to deal with. In these cases, the perpetrator has an interest—a child, for instance—and it is therefore not possible to say that that individual simply should not be allowed to be in court at all. In those circumstances, it is a question of looking at special measures, support and different ways of arranging family and other courts to ensure that they are not used with ulterior motives, because there is growing evidence that is happening. These are difficult cases, but it must be possible to provide support for victims, special measures and, indeed, a more proactive role for judges. A big change in the criminal courts was that judges began to be much more proactive and to say, “This is my problem. I must deal with it. It is my duty to provide a better environment for victims on their journey through our courts.”
What today’s debate throws up is that these issues are not going to go away. They need to be solved, and I think they can be solved across the House, but that will require listening, non-defensiveness and commitment to bringing about real change. Real change has already happened in the criminal sphere; it can happen in the family courts as well, and it need not take 15 years if lessons from one jurisdiction are borrowed by the other.
As is often the case in the main Chamber, I am the last Back Bencher to speak, but I look forward to contributing none the less. I was very touched by all the contributions, but particularly that of the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who set the scene so well—no one could fail to be moved by her contribution. Other right hon. and hon. Members put their cases eloquently and powerfully, and it is good to have them on the record. None of us in the Chamber today, or I suspect outside this place, will have heard those stories without having an ache in their heart.
In the short time available, I want to offer a Northern Ireland perspective, as I always do in this place. I wish that I could say that the figures for Northern Ireland are better, but unfortunately they are not. When Members hear some of the statistics I will give to illustrate the situation, they will start to understand some of the problems we have back home.
This matter requires much thought and consideration. It affects far too many homes and families across the United Kingdom. The statistics are shocking. During this contribution, police forces across the UK will receive at least 10 calls regarding domestic abuse, which is simply horrific. Multiply those 10 calls by the number of Members who have spoken and we get an idea of the number of domestic abuse cases that have taken place since this debate began.
In 2014-15, 28,287 incidents with a domestic violence motivation were reported to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The PSNI responds to a domestic incident every 19 minutes of every day. I am not sure what the reasons are for that—people with much more knowledge will explain—but it might be down to our conflict of 30-odd years, or to economic changes. There are certainly pressures in our society that can make it difficult to have safe and compatible relationships. Some 13,426 domestic abuse crimes were reported, which is approximately 13% of overall crime in Northern Ireland. In the same year, six murders were found to have had a domestic abuse motivation, which is 37.5% of all murders in Northern Ireland. The statistics therefore indicate that the level of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland is very worrying.
At 13,426, the number of domestic abuse crimes was over two and a half times that of drug offences. We know how important it is to address drug issues, but there were just over 5,000 drug offences in that period. The number of burglaries was 9,000. There were 2,734 sexual offences recorded, including 737 cases of rape. Again, those are very worrying figures. Since January 2010, 8,363 multi-agency risk assessment conference cases have been discussed, including 10,856 cases in which children were living in the household, and in 7,955 of those cases the victims were female.
I want to give a few examples, without mentioning any names or going into too much detail, of the cases that I have been confronted with as an elected representative. I have a case of a lady from my constituency who I have known since she was a wee baby. She was married and had two children. She went to live in another part of the Province and she and her husband became estranged. He became quite violent. One night he arrived at her house with a sledgehammer and smashed the backdoor in. I have to say that the police responded very quickly and were there within five minutes. They arrested her husband and took him away. That relationship broke down. This is not just about the violence perpetrated on the doorstep; it is also about the trauma and the mental and emotional effects upon that lady and her two children.
I had another case—I do not think this has been mentioned so far, but I am sure that Members will relate to it—in which a constituent was pursued by her ex-partner at home, at work and on the streets, to the extent that she feared for her life. The thing is that that lady took her own life. Sometimes, we have to look at the after-effects as well.
Stop me if I am wrong, but there is a massive issue that we must be certain that we are handling in the best possible way across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We must make changes to handle the issue in the best way possible. In 2014, a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary found that the police response to domestic abuse was not good enough and that the responses were inconsistent. A reinspection in December 2015 found that, although some positive changes had taken place, there was still room for improvement. That is why we are raising the issue again in the Chamber today.
I know that the Minister will give us some idea of the responses that have taken place and how the improvements have happened. I understand that there is no one blueprint that suits every case. Every case we have heard about today has been different. If there has been a theme, it is that every case is particular and peculiar to the individual person. None the less, they do constitute domestic violence. The term “domestic violence” covers a multitude of sins and each case should be treated individually. There must be a scheme in place that allows that to happen.
In this debate, we are focusing on the changes needed on domestic violence cases in family law courts. However, many cases of domestic abuse do not end up in court as the victim is unwilling to testify. That is the position in many of the cases I have in my office. The couple fall out; they drift apart; they get back together again; and the difficulties continue, with all the “sorrys” and apologies from the partner to the lady concerned. Some do not find the strength to face their abuser, and it is for them that I stand here today and ask: how much more can we do for them? I understand that there have been changes to the statute of limitation and that has to be welcomed, but what more can we do on that matter?
An essential part of change is recognising that domestic violence is not simply against women and children. Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland has released its statistics for 2014-15, which paint a picture of the different scenarios that it is dealing with every day, which we in the debate would recognise. It runs a 24-hour domestic and sexual violence helpline, which received 27,923 calls—almost the same as the PSNI received across the Province. The majority, by miles, of calls to the service continue to be from women. The percentage of male callers this year rose to some 2.2%; the previous year, the percentage was 1.5%. There were 611 sexual violence calls to the helpline from 518 female callers and 93 male callers—sometimes, let us be honest, men themselves have to contact the organisation and I want to put that focus into the debate—262 calls came from foreign nationals and black and minority ethnic women; 35 calls came from the LGBT community; 58% of women callers disclosed mental health issues; and 533 women, an increase of 79 on the previous year, and 226 children, a decrease on the previous year, were referred to Women’s Aid refuges.
I pay tribute to Women’s Aid for what it does in my constituency. It is a marvellous organisation. It is very receptive and responsive. I know the matter is devolved. I always encourage the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that moneys are available for that organisation, too.
This is a hugely diverse range of issues and the fact is that we need improvement in the service provided in all these areas. Although I understand that the task of creating a system that can offer support on the different types of domestic violence appears almost overwhelming, one thing is clearly needed in each case: compassion. We need to ensure that all responders understand that in some cases we cannot understand why someone goes back into an abusive situation. I cannot begin to understand that, but it happens. They deserve and need no less help and compassion than anyone else. Let us help them all. People need to know that there is a safe place and help available anytime they need it and that we have a system in place that will aid people in getting their lives back together. I want to say a big thank you all those Government bodies—the housing services, the police, social services—and all the organisations and charities, including Women’s Aid, which is an independent body, that work together.
This is a big problem that is complex by its very nature. The contributions in the House today have shown that we want the change that is necessary, especially for those who need it most. We must do our best to make the situation better for them. It is my belief that the hard work must begin in this place today.
I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), along with the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and all the other hon. Members who have together secured this vital debate. I should also like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for affording Members this time in the Chamber to discuss this issue. Having listened to today’s discussions, I am sure we can all agree that the contributions have been powerful, moving, thought-provoking and well informed. I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute, as other hon. Members have done, to Claire Throssell and to thank her for all her work with Women’s Aid in trying to ensure that other mothers are protected in a way that, tragically, she and her children were not.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) has mentioned, the issues that we have discussed today have been brought into focus in recent weeks and months by a storyline in “The Archers”, which has dominated the news cycle over the past week. It is inspiring that a charity appeal inspired by the storyline on that radio show has raised more than £150,000 for the charity Refuge. I read this week about the tragic case of Mary Shipstone, whose estranged father murdered her before taking his own life. She and her mother had fled a life of violence and were living in a safe house. It was an act described by the serious case review as a “spite killing”, cynically designed to take the child from her mother and leave an indelible memory of Mary’s death. Another high-profile case, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), was that of Ellie Butler, who was murdered by her father following her return to her parents. These are events that no mother and no family should have to endure.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge told the Backbench Business Committee when she applied for this debate, it is important that the voices of these women should be heard. I especially want to congratulate her on fulfilling her promise to the Committee in her speech today. She made sure that the voices of those women were heard and put on parliamentary record the words of Claire.
I also congratulate Women’s Aid on publishing its urgent and important work, “Nineteen Child Homicides”, 12 years on from a similar shocking report. Much time may have passed since that original report’s publication and, although progress has been made in respect of domestic violence and the family courts, much more needs to be done. That 2004 report influenced the landscape of the family courts, and there is every reason to hope, following the debate today, that the latest report will also have a big effect. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), there needs to be a transformation of our family courts. They need to be an arena for justice, not a weapon with which those who have done wrong can seek to inflict further pain on those who have been wronged.
The case studies described in the report are truly shocking. All the perpetrators were fathers to the children they murdered, and all the murders took place in the context of child contact, whether informally or formally arranged between the parties. The cases to which the Women’s Aid report refer tend to show a deeply worrying pattern in which the fathers involved are actually known to agencies as perpetrators of domestic abuse. The reports’ findings show that a culture of “contact at all costs” has unfortunately arisen in our family courts. As long ago as 2006, however, the then Lord Justice Wall said in response to the first report from Women’s Aid on this subject:
“It is, in my view, high time that the Family Justice System abandoned any reliance on the proposition that a man can have a history of violence to the mother of his children but, nonetheless, be a good father.”
Against that background, it is particularly alarming that Women’s Aid found that the justice system still views the abuse of a mother by a partner or husband as somehow separate from the child’s safety. Anyone reading the report will agree that a review is necessary, but as shadow Justice Secretary I was particularly struck by the barriers identified in the report to ensuring that granting of child contact is safe.
Access to justice is no access at all if it does not also include access to advice and representation. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), the coalition Government inflicted large cuts on the legal aid budget, and private family law cases were no exception to that damaging trend. Although the Government introduced interim regulations for family legal aid earlier this year, the picture has scarcely changed. Those seeking publicly funded legal representation must provide evidence. The time limit for submitting evidence may have been extended from two to five years, but many will wonder why there is a time limit at all. It may be more appropriate for an assessment of relevance to be made rather than to set an arbitrary period of time. It is the provision of evidence itself that causes difficulty and the report makes it clear that much of the required evidence is either “unavailable or unobtainable”. Practitioner groups I have met also report reluctance by some professionals to put the required evidence in writing. Those who do sometimes find their form returned because it is not in the prescribed format and so the process begins again.
At the time, the Government committed to review the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 within three to five years. To date, not only has a review not been published, but no such review has started. It is alarming that some 38% of women were not in a position to obtain the necessary evidence to persuade the Legal Aid Agency that, as victims of domestic violence, they should be eligible for legal aid. More than a quarter of those women had no option other than to represent themselves in court as litigants in person. As outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), that can mean being cross-examined in court by the perpetrator of the abuse and the extra stress of having the sole responsibility for navigating the complex case law and legal processes. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, when a defendant has no legal representation in the criminal courts they will be prevented, quite rightly, from cross-examining a complainant who alleges domestic violence. Instead, the court will appoint an advocate, paid for with public funds, to conduct cross-examination. If that is good enough for the criminal system, why is it not good enough in the family court system?
At her first Justice Committee appearance last week, the new Secretary of State for Justice stated that one of her three objectives was to realise a justice system that works for all, something with which we can all agree. If that is the case, she must turn her mind rapidly to the experiences we have heard today—the experiences of those in the family courts—because the clear evidence of this report is that this is not working for all. To that end, I was disappointed to hear that the all-party group on domestic violence has received no response to date to its “'Domestic Abuse, Child Contact and the Family Courts” report. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the all-party group and its chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley. I hope the new Justice Secretary will do more. I hope that she will take on the task of responding directly to the work of the all-party group and consider carefully the seven recommendations its report makes. As with the Women’s Aid report, it emphasises the need for better adherence to practice direction 12J. As we have heard, that relates to protecting the child and the parent they are living with, and ensuring that the best interests of the child are elevated above other considerations when determining child contact.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) so eloquently said, combating violence against women and girls must be a priority for all parties. Labour’s general election manifesto committed to establishing a commissioner on domestic and sexual violence, to influence priorities across all Departments. We also said that we would publish a violence against women and girls Bill, and provide more stable central funding for women’s refuges and rape crisis centres. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned, we welcome the Government’s change of position on women’s refuges and changes to housing benefit. But, fundamentally, the Government should heed this motion and implement a review as soon as possible. I commend the motion to the House.
I will not be taking any interventions, in an attempt to get through all the questions that have been asked in this important debate, so I ask hon. Members to forgive me. If I do not answer all of the points raised, I will be writing to hon. Members. Let me begin by thanking the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and other Members for securing this debate. On a personal level, I believe that she is an impressive Member of Parliament, and her core decency, which was visibly displayed today, came through. I think that is why she is such a valued Member of this House.
I recognise the strength of feeling on the subject of domestic abuse and the importance that hon. Members from all parts of the House attach to addressing it. The more we talk about this issue, the better. I am very grateful for the opportunity to discuss such a pressing issue, not least because in clinical practice I have encountered a number of cases of domestic violence, primarily against women, but I must say that it also affects men—that should be mentioned. I also think it is important that today we have heard contributions from both men and women; this problem blights our society and we are all responsible for sorting it out.
Domestic abuse appals every one of us. As the Prime Minister made clear in the House only last week, tackling such abuse is a priority for the Government. This debate centres on an important report by Women’s Aid, which was published in January and is entitled “Nineteen Child Homicides”. It calls on the Government to review the treatment and experiences of victims of domestic abuse in the family law courts. It examines a number of serious case reviews published in the 10 years up to 2015, all involving children who were killed by their fathers—19 children in total. The fathers in question all had access to their children through formal or informal contact arrangements. At this point, may I mention the story that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge vividly described? I gather that the mother, Claire, is here, and the story of the loss of Jack and Paul horrified us all. I am in awe of her courage, not just because she is here today, but because her attempt to find some positive outcome to such an appalling tragedy deserves the respect of us all.
The Women’s Aid report makes for harrowing reading. No child should ever die or live in such dreadful circumstances, and it is incumbent on all of us to consider whether more can be done to prevent such tragedies. The report underlines the need to prioritise the child’s best interest in child contact cases involving domestic abuse, and to make sure that known risks are properly considered. The law is clear on that: the family courts’ overriding duty is the welfare of the child.
In March, the Government launched a new strategy on violence against women and girls. We committed £80 million of funding and set out a comprehensive action plan. The Ministry of Justice is playing a central role. Although there remains much work to be done, we have already made progress. We are working closely with the Home Office to protect victims, including introducing the new offence of coercive control, new stalking laws and domestic violence protection orders.
This year, we allocated around £68 million to police and crime commissioners to support victims of crime, including victims of domestic abuse. Today, we announced our plans to allow vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to be cross-examined earlier in the criminal process through digital recording. As well as improving the quality of evidence provided by such witnesses, this should make the experience of giving evidence less traumatic.
This Government’s work to improve the criminal justice response to domestic abuse is also beginning to bear fruit. Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service reported that the number of prosecutions and convictions for domestic abuse is now at its highest level. More victims are seeing justice.
We in the Ministry of Justice remain committed to working closely with partners the CPS and the Home Office, particularly when responding to domestic abuse, but our role does not end there. The Ministry of Justice is acutely aware of the particular responsibilities of supporting victims of domestic abuse going through the family justice system. The issues at stake in family proceedings are sensitive and often complex, and the courts’ decision can have far-reaching implications for the individuals involved, particularly for children. Domestic abuse only exacerbates an already traumatic situation.
We have therefore taken a number of steps to make sure that victims of domestic abuse who find themselves in the family justice system have the support and the protection that they need: we have protected legal aid for individuals seeking protection from abusers; we are investing in the court estate to improve the physical security of family courts and the emotional support available for users; and we have placed renewed emphasis on training for those who work in the family justice system.
Where arrangements have been found wanting, we have taken action. For example, when the Court of Appeal ruled earlier this year that elements of the evidence requirements for making legal aid available to victims of domestic abuse in private family cases were invalid, we changed the regulations as an interim measure. In parallel, we began work to explore fully the issues at play in these cases. We are determined that victims of domestic abuse should be able to access legal aid when they need it, and we want to understand better the experience of victims in these situations so that we can be sure that we have workable arrangements for the longer term.
Over the summer, we have been working collaboratively with domestic abuse support groups, legal representative bodies and colleagues across Government to gather information on the legal aid evidence requirements. I for one welcome the collaborative approach to this work, and would like to see it adopted on other issues.
We are not complacent. We know that there is room for improvement, and we are working closely with the judiciary in particular to consider what additional protections may be necessary for vulnerable victims and witnesses in the family justice system.
Another important report on domestic abuse and the family justice system was recently published by the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence. It highlighted a number of issues of concern, which we are now examining carefully.
I was struck by the unfavourable comparison the APPG’s report made between the treatment of domestic abuse in the family justice system and that in the criminal justice system, which has done a great deal in recent years to develop a coherent, system-wide response to the matter. As the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) pointed out, it is fair to say that the family system can learn valuable lessons from criminal justice, and in particular from the focus that criminal justice agencies have brought to developing a joined-up response, which takes full account of the needs of the victim. The Government agree that it should never be a case of “contact at all costs”.
Judicial guidance issued to family judges by the president of the family division of the High Court—practice direction 12J—makes it clear that the court should make an order for contact only if it can be satisfied that the physical and emotional safety of the child and the parent with whom the child is living can, as far as possible, be secured before, during and after contact.
Compliance with judicial guidance is properly the responsibility of the independent judiciary, as are a number of the issues raised in the two reports. The most senior family judge, the president of the family division, has asked a High Court judge to review the practice direction in the light of recommendations made by Women’s Aid and the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence. I will meet the president later today, and intend to raise this with him in person.
I shall now respond to points made by hon. Members during this discussion. We have heard from the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), for Hove (Peter Kyle), for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Each made a thoughtful and powerful contribution.
I read both reports with interest; they were a difficult read. I can inform the House that I will meet Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, on 17 October, when I look forward to discussing the recommendations with her in person. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley made an important point about the lack of data on the number of litigants in person; I agree that we have insufficient data on trends in the family justice system. I assure the House that evidence-based policy will be at the heart of everything I do as a Minister.
On vulnerable witnesses in the family court, the hon. Members for Rotherham and for Birmingham, Yardley, asked about “controlling or coercive behaviour”, and the understanding thereof in courts. The law is clear: the definition of “harm” includes a child witnessing domestic violence, which includes controlling or coercive behaviour. We are working with the judiciary to consider what additional protections for vulnerable victims and witnesses may be necessary.
With regard to training on domestic abuse—an issue raised by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke—responsibility for judicial training rests with the Judicial College, which runs modules on domestic abuse. Court staff receive training on various aspects of domestic abuse. We are reviewing the training, and have shared the training materials with Women’s Aid to assist us in the review. All family court CAFCASS advisers must complete core training, including on the assessment of domestic abuse, coercive control, and the impact on children.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam raised the case of Ellie Butler. We have all been shocked by the circumstances of that case, but my hon. Friend will appreciate that I am unable to comment on individual decisions of the independent judiciary.
In closing, let me again thank hon. Members for the opportunity to discuss this important subject. I do not need to be reminded of the impact of domestic violence on people; as a doctor, in the last three months I have had two cases of domestic violence, and it is truly shocking when one encounters women in those circumstances. I am determined to do everything that I can to improve our management of cases when they come before the criminal justice system, and indeed to try to get rid of this scourge, which blights our society. I am hopeful, particularly after this debate, that we can work together across the House, and indeed beyond, as we continue efforts to improve the way in which the family justice system responds to domestic abuse.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for having given us this very important debate, which I think has shown the House at its finest. We have heard not only the arguments, but the stories and the voices that needed to be heard. Claire is here today, and I know how much this means to her, but all of this means nothing until we see effective change.
The extent of the challenge was made clear to me this afternoon by a rather unpleasant tweet sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and me in response to my hon. Friend’s comments about the high quality of the debate; it said:
“man-hating at its finest…well done”.
If that does not spur us on to make the changes necessary to put children first in our family courts, nothing will.
I thank the Minister for his thoughtful and considered response, but I urge him to act as quickly as is reasonably possible to make the changes that we know are necessary to stop children dying at the hands of their father.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the Women’s Aid report entitled Nineteen Child Homicides, published in January 2016; and calls on the Government to review the treatment and experiences of victims of domestic abuse in family law courts.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. About an hour ago the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, published a report on the use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen, accompanied by a press release.
As a member of the press I know that very often, to save time, one reads the press release, not the report. I would be grateful for your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to make it clear that there was a majority report and a minority report. The minority report was tabled by myself and the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins). Nowhere in the press release is the minority report mentioned.
I think it is very misleading to put out a press release which suggests that the report is supported by all the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We specifically supported the reports from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and the Department for International Development. That is included in the report, and we say quite clearly that the arms export licensing regime has not worked, and we recommend that the UK suspend licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia that are capable of being used in Yemen, pending the results of an independent United Nations-led inquiry into reports of violations of international humanitarian law, and that the UK issues no further licences. That should have been included in the press release.
The right hon. Lady knows that I have no jurisdiction over press notices and press releases on Committee reports, but as she has made good use of the Chamber today, I am sure that all the newspapers and the media that are looking on will have taken notice of that, and I am sure it will be highlighted. It is not a point for the Chair, but it is certainly on the record now.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am concerned about the lack of information that we are getting from the Government about how the funding that we are giving Yemen is being managed. May we have a report? When was the last time a British diplomat visited Yemen? We need to put on the record that we are not getting proper reporting back on what is happening there with our funding.
Once again, that is not a matter for me, but it is on the record. The hon. Lady made the point clearly about British diplomats going out there. I am sure the Leader of the House will have noted that. It is also a point that can be raised at business questions. The hon. Lady has taken advantage of the opportunity and put it on the record.