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Istanbul Convention: Position of the UK Government

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 26 May 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before using them and before leaving the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Istanbul Convention and the position of the UK Government.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. There is an urgency to this debate, which I will come on to explain, but one of the primary concerns of the Council of Europe, representing 47 member countries and about 800 million citizens in those countries, is to safeguard and protect human rights. Violence, particularly violence against women, including domestic violence, undermines the core values on which the Council of Europe is based.

The urgency of this debate comes about for very good reasons, and just let me say that I initiate the debate, as the leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, in order to highlight the problems that we have with regard to the Istanbul convention. Those reasons stem from the fact that the Turkish Government have decided to withdraw from that convention. People may think it very strange, as it is called the Istanbul convention, that the Turkish Government have decided to withdraw from it, but also the Polish Government appear to be giving indications that they wish to withdraw from it. I think that this is a very serious challenge to a particularly important treaty of the Council of Europe, which I will come on to in just a second.

The reason the UK becomes involved in this is that the Turkish delegation has been saying, “What do we care about this? Look at the UK. A founder member and grand payeur of the Council of Europe has signed the convention but not even ratified it. If they haven’t ratified it, what use is it and why are people getting on to us?” That is something that we should take a strong stand against, because, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will come on to say, we have been doing a lot in order to ratify it.

I commend my hon. Friend for calling this debate today, because it was back in 2012 that the UK Government signed the Istanbul convention, demonstrating their real commitment to tackling violence against women and girls. I join him in urging the Government to set out when the ratification process will come to a head, because I agree that it is deeply concerning that other countries might be taking the lack of ratification as a sign that they do not have to be as cognisant of the treaty as they should be.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. What I would point out on that is, first, that it is a question that I would like to put to the Minister, and I am sure that she will want to comment on it, during her reply to the debate, and say something about the timetable. But we in this country, unlike many countries in Europe, try to change the law first, before ratifying the treaty. It is a simple issue: we try to get the law right in this country. Let us look at some of the other countries that have approached ratification. Ireland signed it in 2015 but did not ratify it until 2019. Luxembourg signed in 2011 but did not ratify until 2018. There is often a long period during which treaties are discussed and the law is changed, but it is such a great shame that the rest of Europe does not follow our advice and change the law in order to get the treaty right. That is certainly something that I have put to the group; and the group, to a person, completely agrees. That is an important point to remember.

The Minister, in her evidence to the House of Lords, said that we have gone further in what we have implemented than the treaty requires. It would be useful to have how we have gone further on the record, so that I have a piece of paper that I can wave—if that does not create too much of an impression of Neville Chamberlain—and can say, “This is what we are really doing.”

The Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul convention, protects women against all forms of violence. It obliges countries to prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence, including domestic violence, against women.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I am always interested in his debates because he highlights issues that I am particularly interested in, so I thank him for that. This House has just passed the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and I believe we have done a great job on that. The Act addresses compliance with article 44 in relation to extraterritorial jurisdiction. However, there are issues with our treatment of women migrants and spousal visas, for example, that we must seek to address—not to sign off on the convention, but simply to do the right thing by these sometimes very vulnerable women. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with him. We need to do the right thing, but the right thing in this case is to ratify the treaty. The treaty sums up the whole approach to the protection of women, and it is the treaty that right across Europe provides women with the confidence that they have protection.

The convention also establishes a specific monitoring mechanism to ensure effective implementation of its provisions by individual countries. It is worth stopping for a moment to look at what the convention covers. I have a list, which I hope is comprehensive, of the things it covers: stalking; sexual harassment; sexual violence, including rape; physical and psychological abuse, including at the hands of intimate partners; forced marriage; forced sterilisation; female genital mutilation; and forced abortion. In all of those areas, as far as I can see, we have already done quite a lot to be able to take the treaty forward. If we think of the work that we have done against female genital mutilation, for example, we have been setting a lead across the European continent. Not only women and girls suffer domestic violence. Parties to the convention—the countries that have ratified it—are encouraged to apply the protective framework that it creates to men too, so that they are covered by the convention, because they, too, suffer violence.

The purpose of this debate is to hear from the Minister what we have done, what we are doing and what we are likely to do, and to hear a bit about the timetable for that. The Governments that have ratified the convention agree to take a number of steps. They agree to train professionals so as to have close contact with victims; to regularly run awareness-raising campaigns; and to take steps to include issues such as gender equality and non-violent conflict. They agree to have a go at resolving the issue of interpersonal relationships in teaching materials and to set up treatment programmes for perpetrators of domestic violence and sex offenders. They agree to work closely with non-governmental organisations and civil society in general.

Most importantly, those Governments agree to involve the media and the private sector in eradicating gender stereotypes and promoting mutual respect, because preventing violence against women and domestic violence should not be left simply to the state alone. It is important that all members of society, men and boys in particular, should help in that process in order to make a good stand.

When preventive measures have failed and violent incidents have happened, it is important to provide victims and witnesses with protection and support. Some examples of the measures set forth in the convention include granting the police the power to remove a perpetrator of domestic violence from his or her home in situations of immediate danger. There is a whole list of other activities recommended by the convention.

The convention also recommends that countries have to introduce a number of new criminal offences, if they do not already exist. Those include psychological and physical violence, and laws against sexual violence, including rape, stalking, female genital mutilation and those other areas, as I said.

The Minister kindly spoke to the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee a little while ago, setting out a lot of what we are about. She said that we are complying with the convention and, indeed, exceeding the requirements of the convention in all but three areas. I would like her to set out how we are exceeding the convention, because that would be helpful. The three areas that she mentioned were psychological violence, extraterritorial jurisdiction and non-discrimination relating to refugee or migrant residency status in the UK.

Northern Ireland is not yet compliant with article 33 of the treaty, but it will be once the new domestic abuse offence in its Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 is implemented by the Assembly. I understand that will come before the Assembly again to be sorted out, probably in the autumn of this year.

The issue is of enormous concern to us and to our European allies. A lot of work has been done, but I want to press on the Government that, as soon as we possibly can, we should ratify the treaty. One of the biggest pieces of work to take the treaty forward is the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which has done so much to turbocharge what we as a country are doing to tackle some of the individual crimes against women and girls. Domestic abuse affects about 2.5 million adult victims in England and Wales, so it is a big activity to target.

On those three areas that we are not yet reaching—I think the Minister will agree—the UK has clear measures on how to address those gaps in the law. It would be useful for her to set out how we are dealing with them.

The convention is really important. We signed up to it in absolute good faith in 2012. We have wanted to go beyond the convention and I have commented on that. However, I hope that Members will treat the Minister kindly, because she has been a great champion of the convention. Building on the recommendation for the protection of women against violence, the convention for the first time in Europe sets out a legally binding standard to prevent violence against women and domestic violence, to protect the victims and to punish the perpetrators. That is a very important element for us to rejoice in, and to be able to take forward.

Violence against women seriously violates and impacts on, or nullifies, the enjoyment by women of their human rights, and in particular their fundamental rights to life, security, freedom, dignity, and physical and emotional integrity. It therefore cannot be ignored by Governments—I am not suggesting that this Government are ignoring it; I am simply stating that as a fact that comes out of this treaty. Governments must recognise that such violence affects not only women, but society as a whole, and that urgent action is required to take this forward. With those remarks, I leave it to the Minister to respond, because I know that she has to appear in the House of Commons shortly, and I want to give her time to be able to give this issue a good outing and to make her meeting.

As always, Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this important debate on the Istanbul convention. I pay tribute to his leadership on the Council of Europe in many areas, but in particular in the area of tackling violence against women and girls and the Istanbul convention. We signed the convention in 2012, signalling our strong commitment to tackling violence against women and girls, and we remain absolutely committed to ratifying it as soon as possible.

However, before I discuss the United Kingdom’s progress towards ratification, I will take a moment to address Turkey’s recent decision to withdraw from the convention. We are very disappointed by this action and have, alongside our partners, publicly urged Turkey to reconsider its position. My hon. Friend the Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas has raised Turkey’s regrettable decision with the Turkish ambassador and her Turkish counterpart. The UK has also endorsed statements of criticism by UN Women, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s permanent council, and the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has been equally tireless in raising his concerns, including through the report that he presented to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last month about the functioning of democratic institutions in Turkey.

I should just add that I am also the rapporteur on Turkey for the Council of Europe. This is a major issue that we bring up time and again with the Council of Europe, in order to make sure that Turkey knows what it is doing on this— because it was done by presidential decree—and to get it to reverse its decision, if we can.

Very much so. It is not acceptable for Turkey to seek to excuse its own actions by referencing other countries, including the United Kingdom; it is responsible for its own decisions. In fact, we are proud that the United Kingdom is recognised around the world as a global leader in tackling violence against women and girls. We are delighted to be co-leading the new Generation Equality Forum’s global action coalition on gender-based violence. We will use this platform to protect and promote the safety and rights of women and girls in all their diversity, and call for all member states to remain committed to international conventions, including the Istanbul convention.

However, as my hon. Friend rightly said, the United Kingdom insists on implementing measures and laws before ratifying international conventions, and that is the approach we have maintained while considering this convention. We have in play some of the most robust measures in the world to protect women and girls from violence and, in all but three respects, we comply with, or indeed go further than, what the convention requires.

I am listening very carefully to the Minister’s argument, and she is absolutely right to say that, as a nation, we want to make sure that we sign up only to things that we know we can adhere to, but this is a treaty that was signed in 2012—almost a decade ago. Leaving such a long time before ratification allows countries such as Turkey to take other meanings from the delay that has occurred in the UK.

In a little while, I am going to encourage countries to follow our lead on some of the measures we have taken, including in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, in which my right hon. Friend played such a vital role in her work chairing the joint Committee that scrutinised the draft Bill. I will address the timeframe in a moment.

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021, to which colleagues of different parties have referred in their contributions, will transform the response across all agencies for victims and their children. We have also introduced new guidance for professionals, as well as a range of new protective tools, such as protection orders for FGM, stalking and forced marriage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out, the range of crimes, and the range of forms that violence against women and girls can take, is very wide and very harmful. As I say, however, there are three outstanding issues to address before we can comply fully with the convention.

The main obstacle delaying our ratification has been compliance with article 44, which relates to extraterritorial jurisdiction. All parts of the United Kingdom need to obtain the power to prosecute their nationals and residents for certain violent and sexual offences committed overseas. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 includes the necessary provisions, which will make all parts of the UK compliant with article 44. I am pleased to inform the House that the extraterritorial jurisdiction provisions for England and Wales will be implemented automatically on 29 June, and I understand that Scottish and Northern Irish Ministers also plan to commence their provisions within a similar timeframe. That will be a significant milestone towards ratification. The only exception to that timescale will be extraterritorial jurisdiction for psychological violence in Northern Ireland.

That brings me to the second issue, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has addressed—namely, article 33 and psychological violence. Unlike England, Wales and Scotland, Northern Ireland is not yet compliant with article 33, because it does not have in force an offence that criminalises psychological violence. The Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, which became law in March and should be implemented by the autumn, provides for a new domestic abuse offence that would criminalise psychological violence in Northern Ireland. Extraterritorial jurisdiction for that offence will be implemented at the same time, representing the last piece in the jigsaw for article 44. Once that offence is implemented, the UK as a whole will be fully compliant with article 33—the second significant milestone towards ratification.

The final outstanding area concerns migrant victims of domestic abuse and relates to articles 3, 4 and 59. In April last year, I announced that the Government were committing £1.5 million in this financial year to fund the support for migrant victims scheme, in order to provide protection and support for vulnerable migrant victims who are unable to access public funds. The scheme launched in April and is intended to run until 31 March 2022. The Government will use this pilot scheme to better assess the level of need for such victims, and to inform evidence-based long-term funding and policy decisions. Therefore, the compliance position for those articles is under review, pending the evaluation and findings for the support for migrant victims scheme.

I understand the frustration that we have not yet been able to ratify the convention. I can reassure hon. Members that we are doing everything we can to ensure that ratification happens as soon as possible within that context, and I must emphasise again that we are taking significant action to tackle violence against women and girls, including going further than the convention requires us to do in many instances. Indeed, I hope other countries will look at what we have achieved in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and non-legislative measures. Perhaps, dare I say, they will follow our lead. For example, only last year we launched the successful #YouAreNotAlone campaign to ensure that victims of abuse, and people worried about friends and family, know how to access help and advice. As of March, the campaign is estimated to have reached 35 million people.

Another example: in January, we launched the Ask for ANI codeword scheme to support victims of domestic abuse, with around 5,000 pharmacies participating. This scheme alone has already helped more than 70 victims and their families to escape domestic abuse. Throughout the pandemic, our absolute priority has been ensuring that victims can continue to access crucial support services. We have provided more than £28 million to domestic abuse organisations, including boosting helplines, web services and refuges, and we have provided additional funding to help victims of sexual violence and modern slavery, as well as vulnerable children.

However, we want to go even further. Since 2010, we have created two new stalking offences, criminalised forced marriage, and committed to reviewing the way in which the criminal justice system responds to rape. Later this year, we will publish a new violence against women and girls strategy, which will help us to target perpetrators and support victims, while enhancing our ability to tackle emerging crime types, such as revenge porn and other online offences. Our determination to listen to women and girls in order to shape our strategies—both violence against women and girls and tackling domestic abuse—is proven by our decision to run the first-ever public survey on violence against women and girls.

Following the tragic events earlier this year, during which thousands of women and girls shared their own experiences of violence against women and girls, the Home Secretary reopened the public survey so that more people could contribute to this vital work. I am pleased to tell the House that that survey has received around 180,000 responses, which anyone who keeps an eye on Government surveys will appreciate is an extremely high level of response. I am incredibly grateful to everyone who took part in that survey. Their contributions are being analysed and will be absolutely invaluable in helping us to shape this new strategy, as well as the specific complementary domestic abuse strategy which we are publishing later this year.

On the progress of the Istanbul convention, as required by law, we will publish our next annual progress report on ratification of this by 1 November. On the details of where we are complying and exceeding measures, our most recent ministerial statement sets out details of the convention. I would very much like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley for raising these important issues, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and the hon. Gentleman for Strangford for their contributions. I am grateful to them for allowing me the opportunity to address the Government’s position.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.