Clause 1: Duty to grant old-style secure tenancies: victims of domestic abuse
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out “already” and insert “or was”
My Lords, before I speak to the amendments in my name, and with the permission of the House, I will say a few words about a number of issues which arose during debates in Committee, and which I undertook to speak to again on Report.
During the debate, I said that I would like to come back on Report and say something in relation to housing associations. I appreciate that noble Lords desire to see parity for tenants of local authorities and housing associations, but it is important to be clear that the organisations are very different. They are subject to different drivers and challenges. Local authorities are public sector organisations, and in future they will generally be required by law to give fixed-term tenancies. Housing associations, on the other hand, are private, not-for-profit bodies and will continue to have the freedom to offer lifetime tenancies where they think them appropriate. The vast majority of housing associations are charities whose charitable objectives require the organisation to put tenants at the heart of everything that they do. Their purpose is to provide and manage homes for people in housing need.
Many associations take their responsibilities for people fleeing domestic violence very seriously. For example, two leading housing associations, Peabody and Gentoo, have set up the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance together with Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, a UK charity bringing communities together to end domestic abuse. Their mission is to improve the housing sector’s response to domestic abuse through the introduction and adoption of an established set of standards and an accreditation process.
Housing associations play a critical role in delivering the homes that we need. They can help provide a home for people fleeing domestic abuse only if they have the homes to put them in. This means ensuring they remain in the private sector able to borrow funding free of public sector spending guidelines. Unnecessary control risks reversing the ONS classification of housing associations as private sector organisations.
On the issue of doctors’ fees, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will also return to later, the noble Lord raised the issue of letters of evidence of domestic abuse. In my response I said that as data subjects, which we all are under the Data Protection Act, individuals can lawfully ask to be provided with their medical records without charge, thus obviating the need for a letter altogether. As I said at the time, I had not had very long to look at the issue and would like to take the opportunity to clarify the statement.
It is true that, as a data subject, an individual can ask to be provided with a copy of their medical records. From 25 May this year, when the General Data Protection Regulation becomes directly applicable, a data subject—that is, an individual—cannot be charged a fee except where a request is manifestly unfounded or excessive, or where requests are made for further copies of the same information, in which case the fee must be reasonable and based on the administrative cost of providing the information. Therefore, the law as it will stand when this Bill comes into force will allow a victim to make a request for their records and not to be charged. However, the law on data protection as it stands at present allows an administrative charge to be made. Currently, the Subject Access Code of Practice states that a GP may charge a maximum fee of up to £10 if the information is held electronically, or up to £50 if it is held either wholly or partly in non-electronic form.
I thank the House for letting me put the record straight on this point. I think many of us feel that it is a very germane issue. I am sure that many GPs do not charge for this service—I should imagine that very few do. However, as a result of the exchange that we had and the general feeling that was evident, after looking at the issue I raised the matter with the Department of Health and Social Care in relation to a review of the doctors’ contract, because this issue is part of the doctors’ contract and I can understand that it would not want to look at this on its own. Successive Governments have looked at doctors’ contracts and obviously grouped issues together, but I know that the department will look at this. I have raised it with the department. The House will want to know that the process of looking at representations about the doctors’ contract commences in April this year, as I understand it, so the department will be able to take that issue on board very shortly.
During both Second Reading and Committee, we discussed co-operation between England and the devolved Administrations where victims of domestic abuse need to move from one country to another within the United Kingdom. I said that I intended to raise this at the next meeting of the devolved Administrations round table, which is to be held in Cardiff on 19 April. I can tell the House that I have written to my opposite numbers in the devolved Administrations to ask that this issue is put on the agenda for the April meeting in Cardiff. In particular, I have let them know that I would like to explore whether we could develop a joint concordat or memorandum of understanding between the four countries of the United Kingdom on our approach to social housing and cases of domestic abuse. I will be very happy to report back on that issue after the meeting on 19 April.
The next issue that I undertook to look at during Report was in relation to training. During Committee, noble Lords discussed training of local authority officials who will be responsible for the exercise of the duties contained in the Bill. I accepted the points raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, regarding the need for consistency in training to ensure that victims of abuse get the support they need from front-line staff, which I shared with officials responsible for the homelessness code of guidance consultation. I also set out the numerous ways in which the Government are supporting local authorities to train their front-line staff to ensure consistency, including the funding we provided to the National Practitioner Support Service for domestic abuse awareness training in 2016, which resulted in the training of 232 front-line housing staff across nine English regions and the production of an online toolkit, and to the National Homelessness Advice Service—the NHAS—to provide training, which included courses covering domestic abuse and homelessness. This NHAS training is being updated to reflect the Homelessness Reduction Act, and we will ensure that the revised material draws attention to the strengthened guidance on domestic abuse contained in the new code of guidance.
I add that we have since published the updated statutory homeless guidance on 22 February. In case noble Lords are unaware of that, I will circulate it to noble Lords who participated in the debate and will place a copy in the Library. This will come into force at the same time as the Homelessness Reduction Act comes into force, on 3 April this year, so within a month. The guidance provides extensive advice to help local authorities handle cases that involve domestic abuse, including having appropriate policies and training in place to identify and respond to domestic abuse.
Amendments 1 to 4 are in my name and in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hamwee; I am grateful for the support. The Bill provides that local authority landlords must grant a lifetime tenancy if they decide to rehouse an existing lifetime tenant who needs to move because of domestic abuse or who has fled to escape domestic abuse. It delivers on the commitment made during the passage of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 to ensure that, where lifetime tenants move to escape domestic abuse, they will retain their security of tenure in their new social home. Where victims are still in their property and apply to move, they will also be covered by the Bill. However, we recognise that, where a victim has fled the property, she—it will generally be she, although it need not be—will be more vulnerable, first, because there may be situations in which she may be considered to have lost her security of tenure and, secondly, because she may have lost her lifetime tenancy altogether before she is rehoused.
To give examples of this, in the first case, where the victim has a sole tenancy the local authority may consider that the tenancy is no longer secure on the basis that, having fled, she no longer occupies the property as her sole and principal home and has no intention to return. In the second case, where the victim has a joint tenancy, the joint tenant who remains in the property may have brought the joint tenancy to an end, for example, because he—it will usually be he, although it need not be—can no longer cover the rent. This is likely to be most problematic for victims who spend a lengthy period elsewhere—for example, in a refuge or temporary accommodation—before they are rehoused, or where victims move to another local authority area.
As currently drafted, the Bill would not apply in these situations. That struck me as wrong. As I said previously, the Government’s aim in bringing forward the Bill is to remove an impediment that could prevent a victim leaving their abusive situation. However, it is not right that someone who takes the difficult decision to flee their home should by so doing risk losing the protection afforded by the Bill.
Amendment 1 will address this issue by extending the Bill to those who were previously lifetime tenants, as well as those who currently are lifetime tenants. Amendment 2 removes the requirement for the tenant to have applied to move, which is no longer necessary, consequent to Amendment 1, which recognises that the tenant may have left the previous tenancy some time ago.
Amendments 3 and 4 align the existing provisions in the Bill, which relate to victims moving to a new home, with the new provisions in Amendments 5, 7 and 8, which the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has tabled, and which relate to victims who remain in their home. This will ensure a consistent approach across the piece.
Amendment 3 makes clear that the domestic abuse must have been perpetrated by another person. This is included to prevent a perpetrator seeking to profit from the provisions in the Bill by asking for a new tenancy on the basis that someone in their household was abused by them. It is necessary to provide a link between the abuse and the granting of the new tenancy to avoid local authorities having to grant a lifetime tenancy with regard to historic domestic abuse that has no relevance to the current housing circumstances.
Amendment 4 brings the wording of the existing provision in line with that of the new provision to be introduced by Amendments 5, 7 and 8. This will ensure consistency across the Bill while retaining the necessary link between the new tenancy and the abuse. We think that this will make it easier for those who have to interpret the legislation—local authorities, victims of domestic abuse and their advisers. I hope that noble Lords will welcome these changes. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to support these amendments. I shall speak briefly to Amendment 4 but will say a bit more about it when we come to the next group of amendments. The key issue here is to remove the notion of risk. Talking to Women’s Aid, it is clear that, in practice, having to prove risk creates unnecessary hurdles, and I can do no better than quote what it says in the briefing that it has provided for us:
“Women’s Aid has reported widely on the issues with a ‘risk-based’ approach to domestic abuse; static risk assessments fail to capture the changing risk and harm in these cases, and a risk based approach fails to provide appropriate support or meet the needs of victims assessed as ‘low’ or ‘medium’ risk”.
It makes the point that it places an even greater premium on good specialised training to be able to adequately assess risk in these circumstances. Therefore, I am delighted that the Minister was willing to make that change. As well as creating equivalence with the next amendment, I think that it improves the Bill overall.
My Lords, my name is added to these amendments. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and thank the Minister for all the work that they have done.
I have just written a short piece on scrutiny and have written mostly about the need to engage with stakeholders and practitioners—people who know what they are talking about. Although I take great delight in asking whether “and” should be “or” and so on, that is not really the purpose of scrutiny. However, this seems to be a very good example of those who have experience of real situations working together to anticipate where there might be problems if the legislation is not changed, as it has been. Therefore, I congratulate them and feel rather privileged to have been able to tack my name on to these amendments.
My Lords, as this is my first contribution to the proceedings on the Bill today, I draw the attention of the House to my interests listed in the register—in particular, the fact that I am a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
Amendments 1 to 4, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, and supported by my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, have my full support. The amendments in themselves might look quite small but they provide a clarity that is needed following examination of the Bill by noble Lords. A number of conversations have been held outside the Chamber to get the wording right.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for the clarification at the start of his contribution and for the information that he has provided to the House today. Generally, his remarks are very welcome and I thank him for them. I also thank him for his personal support in getting the Bill on to the statute book to correct an error in the Housing and Planning Act 2016. As I have said before, it is not a good piece of legislation—I think it is an example of “act in haste and repent at leisure”. There have been one or two other problems with that legislation, as the noble Lord knows. I am very happy to support these amendments.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and will pick up on just a couple of points. I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, about the key point being to remove the notion of risk. Through her and through this contribution, I thank Women’s Aid for the positive engagement that we have had with it. As an organisation, it is exemplary in many ways and I thank them. I accept, and not grudgingly, the need for good, specialised training—that is central to this.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for generously adding her name to this amendment and for her positive contributions during the course of the Bill. I agree that, once again, working together, not just outside the House but within it, has engaged many people on the importance of tackling this issue and has been central to the passage of the Bill.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his characteristic generosity and his full support as we have taken the Bill through the House. It is very helpful to be able to engage with an opponent who is certainly not a political enemy—far from it—and who wants to engage positively. That has certainly helped with this Bill.
Amendment 1 agreed.
Amendments 2 to 4 agreed.
5: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, at end insert—
“(2AA) A local housing authority that grants a secure tenancy of a dwelling-house in England must grant an old-style secure tenancy if—(a) the tenancy is offered to a person who was a joint tenant of that dwelling-house under an old-style secure tenancy, and(b) the authority is satisfied that—(i) the person or a member of the person's household is or has been a victim of domestic abuse carried out by another person, and(ii) the new tenancy is granted for reasons connected with that abuse.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 5, I will speak also to Amendments 7 and 8, in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Their support underlines the fact that this is a genuinely cross-party amendment made possible by the willingness of the Minister to take on board the one substantive concern that we and the Liberal Democrat Benches have about the Bill: namely, that it did not afford protection to survivors of domestic violence who remain in their home and who are granted a new tenancy in place of an existing joint tenancy. It was extremely helpful that the Bill team was willing to engage with the lawyers advising me—Andrew Arden QC and Justin Bates; I am very grateful for their assistance—in reaching a form of wording for the amendment that was mutually satisfactory.
For the record, I want to note that the amendment I tabled in Committee was not technically deficient in the way that the Minister described. However, it did, as he pointed out, maintain an unintended link to removing the risk of further abuse. Happily, in doing so, it led me to question why that link was there at all because, as noted in relation to Amendment 4, there are problems with it. Women’s Aid then advised me that the inclusion of a reference to such a risk relies on housing officers being trained to recognise the potential ongoing risk a perpetrator may pose, which, as I said, can cause problems. I will return to the question of training in a moment, and I am grateful to the Minister for updating us on his thinking on it.
At this point, I too pay tribute to Women’s Aid, not just for the support it has provided on this Bill but for the vital work it does helping survivors of domestic abuse. It was good to hear the tribute from the Minister, and I am sure that Women’s Aid will very much appreciate it.
I will repeat briefly the case for the amendment. We tend to talk about women fleeing domestic violence, because that is the most common scenario: the woman escapes a harmful and dangerous situation and tries to find a place of safety, often in a refuge and often in another local authority area. But there are cases where the perpetrator is removed by the local authority or the police. Indeed, it would appear to be government policy to encourage this where it is safe for the woman to remain in the home and she does not want to leave it. This is partly to avoid the upheaval involved in moving home, for the women themselves and for their children, and, even under the old legislation, partly a desire not to lose the security of an existing secure tenancy. But the policy to encourage the removal of the perpetrator where safe to do so is also motivated by a desire to prevent him—we have noted at an early stage that it is usually “him”—from benefiting from the abuse by driving his partner from the home, as spelled out in the recent consultation document, Improving Access to Social Housing for Victims of Domestic Abuse.
I suspect it is a situation that might become more common, although we are talking very much about a small minority now. But even if it is a small minority, minorities matter. Where it is the perpetrator who leaves the home and there is a joint tenancy, I am advised that it is usual practice for a new sole tenancy to be granted in the name of the survivor. This amendment is crucial to protecting the rights of a survivor granted a sole tenancy in such circumstances, in line with the rights it affords to those who flee the home.
A theme running through our debate hitherto has been that in order to ensure that this very welcome legislation is effective, there needs to be adequate guidance to housing authorities and training for the officers who will be implementing it, as the Minister acknowledged earlier. At the outset he seemed to indicate that this was unnecessary because guidance and training already exist but, as is his wont, he listened and has taken on board the fact that there is considerable room for improvement in both, given the gap that exists between the theory of what is supposed to happen in local authorities and the practice of what actually happens when it comes to meeting the housing needs of domestic abuse survivors in a consistent and effective way. As a consequence, housing authorities’ responses can present barriers to survivors’ access to safety.
I was heartened when the Minister at an earlier stage said he would be taking a close personal interest in the development of the code and would consider the various submissions made by Women’s Aid and others. Officials have now had a constructive meeting with Women’s Aid to discuss this and its helpful note on training needs. Women’s Aid has emphasised to me the importance of consistency, and that requires good guidance and high-quality, comprehensive specialist training. A few examples of good practice, such as those highlighted by the Minister in Committee—welcome as they are—are not enough. Specialist training, it argues, needs to cover, among other things, the nature and impact of domestic abuse and coercive control; the links between domestic abuse and homelessness; identification of those subjected to it; recognition of the insidious effects of victim blaming beliefs and attitudes; effective and safe practice, including risk assessment, multi-agency working and the importance of treating survivors with dignity and respect, which are crucial to a human rights culture.
On attitudes and appropriate treatment, I have learned from colleagues working in the area of poverty that the involvement of service users in training can be beneficial. A project involving people with experience of poverty in the training of social workers helped social workers understand much better what poverty means and how it can affect the people with whom they work and their behaviour. I was heartened by what the Home Secretary said in her recent Times article on the proposed domestic abuse strategy consultation. She said that,
“survivors and their children are at the heart of this consultation”,
“we will keep listening to experts and survivors”.
It is good to know that not all Ministers believe we have heard enough from experts.
However, my point is that survivors bring their own expertise to the table—expertise by experience. That expertise is invaluable both to the Government in developing their strategy—I hope that when they are developing their strategy, survivors of domestic abuse will be involved in the consultation—and to those being trained to assess the housing needs of survivors.
In Committee I raised the question of how the Government may monitor the effectiveness of this and other legislation in relation to the housing needs of domestic abuse survivors as part of the wider domestic abuse strategy. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that now.
Finally, I remind noble Lords that at Second Reading colleagues from around the House expressed concern about plans to change the funding base of refuges. In response to the opposition expressed by NGOs to the proposal for devolution of funding to local authorities—ring-fenced but, along with all short-term supported housing services, we do not know how long for—the Government have committed to considering all options. This is welcome, although it is disappointing that there was no mention of this in the Home Secretary’s Times article, which referred to the proposal in terms all too reminiscent of those used to justify the devolution of funds from the national social fund to the new local welfare assistance schemes, many of which are now being closed or drastically cut back. I do not expect the Minister to say anything about this at this stage but I hope he will take the message back to his colleagues both in his Ministry and the Home Office.
I have said more than enough, given the broad agreement on this amendment and the need to back it up with adequate guidance and training. I beg to move.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interest in the register as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, and of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. They have done a great deal to secure what seems to be an agreed and agreeable outcome. The process in this Bill so far has been a good example of the House working at its best. I also want to pay tribute to Women’s Aid, in part because of the quality of its briefings and in particular for reminding us of the funding issues which still remain. I hope very much that the Minister will bear in mind the points that have been made by Women’s Aid.
I want to add only one or two points. In Committee I said that training is very important for this to work, and I was glad to hear the Minister refer to it in his opening remarks. To be effective, staff really will have to understand in great detail the processes that they should be following. I cite in particular the example of where a victim moves between local authorities with possibly a significant distance between the two. We need effective systems and networks in place for that to function properly. I have two suggestions to make as to how it might be done.
The first is one that I think I mentioned in our last debate. The training should be sub-regional; in other words, it is very important that the people in different local authorities who deal with these matters should know each other so that they know who to contact if there is an issue, and they should be trained together. Secondly, because the training is sub-regional, it would help if there were named contacts in every local authority who would be seen as the point of expertise not only within the authority concerned but also more generally. They are the people who should be contacted and they would maintain the files, particularly on difficult cases such as those requiring confirmatory evidence and so on.
With those two suggestions, I should like to thank the Minister very much indeed for getting us to this point. It is a positive outcome to our discussions over recent weeks.
My Lords, Amendment 5, proposed by my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett, is one that I fully support. She must be congratulated on pursuing this issue. As we have heard, the amendment puts into the Bill provisions to ensure that the protections set out in it apply to a victim of domestic violence who is living in a secure joint tenancy and stays in their home when the perpetrator leaves or is removed, as well as to victims who leave their homes.
This anomaly was first raised by my noble friend during the Second Reading debate on the Bill and she deserves much credit for persuading the Government that there was a real issue here and getting them to accept the amendment, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, has done. He has shown himself to be prepared to listen carefully and look at the very real issues raised by my noble friend. I join others in paying tribute to the important work being done by Women’s Aid and I think that we all recognise the great job it does. Representatives of Women’s Aid have also engaged very positively with me during the passage of the Bill and I thank them for that.
I will not detain the House any further other than to say that I am very pleased that this amendment is going to be agreed shortly.
My Lords, as is indicated by my name being on the amendment, the Government are more than happy to accept it and the related amendments. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and I have worked together on them and therefore I have put my name down in support of them. As others have done, I pay tribute to her for working openly, determinedly and always pleasantly with me and my officials to ensure that these amendments are fit for purpose and improve the Bill. I also thank other noble Lords for their positive engagement.
The Government’s aim in bringing forward the Bill was to address a narrow but important issue; specifically, to remove an impediment that could prevent the victims of domestic abuse from leaving their abusive situation for fear that they might lose their security of tenure if they moved to another social home—an issue that was brought to the attention of the House by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. We recognise that there is a strong case for extending the same level of protection to those lifetime tenants who have suffered domestic abuse but wish to remain in their home after the perpetrator has left or, having taken temporary refuge elsewhere, wish to return to their home once the perpetrator has been removed. These amendments will ensure that where local authorities offer a new tenancy to a lifetime tenant in their own home, this must be for a further lifetime tenancy where the tenant is a victim of domestic abuse.
The amendments have been drawn widely. They will protect victims of domestic abuse where the perpetrator has moved out of the property and either tenant has terminated the joint tenancy. They will also cover the situation where the landlord has sought a court order to terminate the tenancy after the victim has fled but agrees that the victim can move back into the property once the perpetrator has been evicted. The new provision applies to those who had a joint tenancy, rather than to existing joint tenants—that is to say, it requires that the previous tenancy must have come to an end before a new tenancy can be granted. I agree that this is the right approach as it will obviate the risk that there could be two concurrent tenancies of the same property. These amendments, together with Amendments 1 to 4, which we have just addressed, will ensure that the Bill covers the circumstances in which a victim of domestic abuse who has or had a lifetime tenancy seeks a new tenancy as a consequence of that abuse.
I turn to some of the points that have been made. I agree about the importance of the consistency of training across England, and indeed more widely, although here we are concerned just with England. I will keep noble Lords abreast of what is happening with that. As I said, some important information was published on 22 February, which I will get to noble Lords, as I am not sure that they have it at the moment, and place a copy in Library.
On the monitoring of the impact of the Bill, we will be watching this like hawks. I will be talking to officials as to how we ensure that the data we collect—we collect data on all social housing lettings through CORE, which collects data in this area—will enable us to see precisely what is happening nationally on this to provide a consistent approach. Again, I will update noble Lords on that as we go forward.
On the broader points made about the commitment of the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to domestic abuse legislation, it is total. They are both very committed to this. The Prime Minister was previously Home Secretary, of course. This was very much central to the thrust of what she wanted to do when she became Prime Minister. It was very high, if not number one, on her agenda. It is important that noble Lords are aware of that. That will help progress in that area.
On the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised on being open about and looking at funding, she is absolutely right. It is important that we recognise that there is a national dimension to the funding of refuges, not least because people very often are fleeing from the area where they live, understandably, to another area. Also, specialist services could not necessarily be provided on a local basis. There is an important local dimension as well. We are trying to square those things. I will pass this on to my honourable friend Heather Wheeler, the Minister in the department responsible for this policy area. I am sure she will be keen to look at it.
I turn to the suggestions from the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. I think he raised them previously and they seemed to me attractive proposals that training be conducted in a sub-regional way so that people know each other. I will pass them on. I will also pick up a point made about the importance of including survivors in the development of all this. That is absolutely right. When I have visited domestic abuse services, one of the key factors is where you see survivors helping with fresh victims, as it were, coming in. That has a tremendous impact on morale. They obviously have detailed knowledge. It is central to what we are seeking to do. I fully agree with and support it. The idea of a named contact for all authorities is again a very good one. When we deliver services it is important that we do not do so in an anonymised way. Having a go-to person with a name that is known is important. I will take those back.
Additionally, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, once again and echo what he said about Women’s Aid and other key deliverers of domestic abuse services, such as Refuge and many others that are doing a great job, which Women’s Aid certainly is. I thank him again for his positive contribution and commitment to this area. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her engagement. I know that she did not speak on these issues, but I know that they are close to her heart and I very much value her engagement.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, particularly the Minister for his helpful engagement with a number of points that have been raised, including the very useful suggestion on training from the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. I am pleased that he acknowledged the national dimension of funding; I realise that there is a local dimension as well, but the national is important, particularly when survivors are moving great distances. I am delighted that he will be watching like a hawk how this works, obviously in the context of other provisions, and I welcome his commitment to keeping noble Lords updated on what is happening, which I think we all want.
At Second Reading, I said that this was a first for me in that I more or less unequivocally welcomed a Bill in your Lordships’ House. I am happy that I can now say that I totally unequivocally welcome this Bill with the addition of this amendment. That is thanks to a number of people: to noble Lords across the House who have supported me in pressing for the inclusion of such an amendment—I am thinking particularly of colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, as well as my noble friend—and the Bill team and lawyers, who were willing to engage with what I call my informal legal advisers. Together, they agreed wording that we are all happy with. I thank once again Women’s Aid, which has been supportive to all of us with its briefings, and, last but very much not least, the Minister, because if he had not been willing to listen and engage I do not think that any of this would have happened. Clearly, officials have to take their lead from the Minister. His openness and willingness to listen to what we have said and to see where changes needed to be made, have made this possible. I am very grateful. It seems odd to say “with” as opposed to “against”, but it has been a pleasure to work with him in this situation.
Amendment 5 agreed.
6: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, at end insert—
“(2AA) The person making the application for an old-style secure tenancy under subsection (2A) must not be charged for obtaining any evidence of domestic abuse if this evidence is required to make the application.”
My Lords, Amendment 6 raises the issue of victims of domestic violence being charged a fee to provide evidence by way of a letter or some other acceptable form of confirmation to the authorities that they are a victim of domestic violence. That fee can range from £75 to £100 or even more. I think that it is completely wrong.
Certainly some GPs charge this fee. I accept that it is a minority of GPs, but it is wrong for any GP to charge it. I raised the issue both at Second Reading and in Committee, and I do so again today.
When the amendment was discussed in Committee, I had support from noble Lords around the House, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke in that debate. I read again yesterday the response of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, to the debate in Committee. He agreed with me that charging a fee to a victim of abuse who is seeking evidence of their abuse to access a service is,
“far from an ideal situation”.—[Official Report, 24/1/18; col. 1058.]
I would go further than that and say that, in 2018, when domestic violence is centre stage—no longer an issue not talked about but out in the open, with perpetrators rightly condemned and brought to justice for the disgusting crime that it is—to charge victims a fee to provide evidence to prove that they are a victim so that they can get help is unacceptable.
The good news that the Minister gave the House the last time he spoke on the issue just does not go far enough. I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, has tabled a Question on domestic violence that will be answered in the next day or two. I will raise the issue again if I can get in at that Question Time.
If you have been a victim of a crime and been beaten, distressed or frightened, it is not good enough to say that you can get around the issue of a fee by putting in a subject access request for your medical records. I have no idea what you would do with your medical records: I assume that you get a big pile of papers giving all your medical history and stuff. So for me it would be my blood pressure, and I am a diabetic so there would be issues about my feet, but I am not sure that medical records would say that you had been beaten, that you have a cut or that you have been bruised. Would they actually say that you had been a victim of domestic violence? If not, we are again in the situation where you might hand your medical records to the authority who might say, “Yes, it says you have a bruise to the head; it does not say that you have been a victim of domestic violence. You might have fallen over”. So there are some issues even with using the records. Will they actually deliver what the noble Lord says?
I think we should be very clear that no victim should ever be charged for a letter or any other form of evidence to say that they are a victim of domestic violence. We need to ensure that that happens. I accept that it is about the doctors’ contract and I am pleased that that is going to be reviewed in April, because it is certainly an issue. I accept that it is the Department of Health, not the noble Lord’s department, but this is an issue that we cannot let go: it is totally wrong that anyone is charged a fee to prove that they are a victim of a crime.
My Lords, the Minister spoke at the outset of this afternoon’s proceedings about the Data Protection Bill—the Act as it will soon be—and data subjects’ rights of access to information. I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, about the extent of notes that doctors may keep. I have no expertise in this area but I know that I can sit in a doctor’s surgery and witter on for seven or eight minutes and it comes out, perhaps, as a reference to a consultant in two lines. I assume that the two lines are much closer to what is kept in the notes than my seven minutes of semi-articulate complaints.
I am also concerned about whether doctors, GPs particularly, will feel able to keep notes about their assessment, which might be just a guess, as to the reason for the injuries which they are considering. Some may, some may not, and some may be concerned about the implications for them if they get it wrong. Again, it is not something that I have come across, but in other walks of life, such as universities, where teachers may keep notes about students’ attainments or otherwise, I understand that there are concerns not to say anything that might come back to bite the writer of those notes. I certainly do not think it is something we can assume will be covered by the data protection provisions that will shortly be coming into effect.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for bringing this amendment forward and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her contribution on Amendment 6, which deals with the subject of GP letters. In fact, noble Lords will appreciate that the amendment is drawn much more widely—it refers, I think, to other professionals as well. I am sure that the noble Lord did this quite deliberately; it would apply, for example, to solicitors’ letters and accountants’ letters as well, where there are obviously rather different considerations, because we have a more direct route in relation to GPs’ contracts.
As I said previously and I am very happy to repeat, the noble Lord is quite right to say that the wording is far from ideal; that is absolutely right. I accept the point that the noble Baroness has just made, and was made by the noble Lord as well, about the data. It is hard to know without seeing doctors’ notes: sometimes it may cover the case very well, sometimes it may not. I also take the noble Baroness’s point that doctors may be reluctant to commit to writing something relating to domestic abuse, but I suppose that that could also apply in relation to the letter itself. It is certainly a consideration, I accept that. The early sounding I had when I raised this matter with the Department of Health was that it has the same view that we do. It considers that this issue needs looking at. I have not yet had a detailed response to the points I made but I am very happy to share the general thrust of that as soon as I do, because this is a very reasonable point and one that I am sure the vast majority of GPs would go along with.
On the basis that I undertake to update the House on the discussions that we are having with the Department of Health—recognising, as the noble Lord indicated, that it is the lead department on this—I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the noble Lord for that response. I am happy to withdraw the amendment—I am not going to push it to a vote today—but this is a really important issue. I accept that the Minister’s department is not responsible, but it is just wrong. It is a minority, although a pretty large one, who will charge for these letters. It is unacceptable that that happens in today’s world.
The issue about the medical records—what is the point of a medical record? Is it being able to use it for other things or is it accurately recording the treatment that has been given? I do not think it is as simple as the record itself will necessarily be helpful enough. People may be reluctant to do that anyway. I do not know what the Department of Health intends to do.
I am happy to withdraw the amendment today but I am certainly going to keep raising this issue. If I get a Question later in the week I will raise it then. We have to get this changed. I accept that that involves the GP contract. At this stage, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Amendments 7 and 8
7: Clause 1, page 1, line 16, leave out “subsection (2A)” and insert “subsections (2A) and (2AA)”
8: Clause 1, page 2, line 8, leave out “or (2A)” and insert “, (2A) or (2AA)”
Amendments 7 and 8 agreed.