Committee (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 21st and 28th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1: Definition of “domestic abuse”
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—
“(a) B is aged 16 or over and is personally connected to A,”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would expand the definition in the bill to include a relationship where one person was under 16 and the other was over 16.
My Lords, I am very conscious of being the first speaker at this stage of a Bill which has been so widely welcomed, and which so many people, outside and inside the House, are ambitious to amend—or maybe I should say expand.
There are some niggles, but I do not think that any noble Lord is planning to oppose any clause standing part of the Bill. That is very unusual. Often, giving notice of an intention to oppose a clause standing part is not to signal opposition but to probe or interrogate the Government on what lies behind the printed words or how the Government intend them to be fulfilled. The Bill has been a long time in the making, so the Government have had a lot of time to refine it.
This is not the moment for a Second Reading speech—Committee is the stage at which we are workmanlike—but I want to make one general point, which is to thank all the organisations and individuals who have contacted us and informed our thinking. Their hard work and determination are impressive. We will be anxious to do justice to them, but I fear that it will not be possible to credit them by name. Nevertheless, I hope they appreciate that we appreciate that this is a collaborative effort, in which they are partners.
My noble friends Lady Burt and Lord Paddick are on the Front Bench for this Bill but, by chance, I have the privilege of moving the first amendment. I should declare what I regard as interests, because they certainly affect how I think about the issues. For many years, although some time ago, I was a board member and then chair of Refuge. I am currently a member of the board of Safer London, whose work with children and young people can mean addressing family and other personal connections, including working with young people to help them understand what good relationships are.
So, to Amendment 1. There has been debate about the abuse of children but this amendment is not about that. The focus of the Bill is the abuse of partners, and we now have Clause 3, which concerns the impact on children who witness that abuse.
I have from time to time heard reports of abuse by children of adult relations. One would hope that ways outside legislation would be used to deal with such behaviours, but I would be grateful if the Minister could explain to the Committee how the Government regard, for instance, violence or threats of violence by a 13 year-old towards his mother or grandmother. A teenager living in the same household as a grandparent could be in a position to extract money or valuable items from the grandparent. Noble Lords can imagine various reasons: how this might be prompted by a need for drugs, or to get money for a gang, as gang members often regard their gang as their family. We want to ensure that the Bill is comprehensive, and the intention behind the amendment is to ask why it applies only when both individuals are 16 or over.
I realise that it is necessary, in proposing a change to the scope of a Bill, in a non-technical sense, that one should ask oneself: what follows? Should it be a protection order or qualifying for statutory support? Nothing is achieved by extending the categories of people to whom the Bill applies simply as an expression of concern without also considering what is achieved in practice, although it may help us all to understand how other, existing, legislation covers their situations. This is a probing amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as listed in the register. I listened with great interest to the noble Baroness’s explanation of this first amendment. I bring to the House a different situation that in my view is covered by the amendment, but which the noble Baroness has not put forward. Like many of the groups I am involved with, I am very opposed to marriage under the age of 18. There is no doubt that a number of teenage marriages involve domestic abuse. It is important to recognise that, in such marriages, those under 18 are as much at risk as anyone else. Later, I will deal through amendments of my own with a situation I am particularly concerned about: young people both under and over 18 who are forced by coercive control or physical abuse into an unwanted marriage that they—she, generally, but sometimes he—do not want to enter. That is why I want to raise this issue as perhaps another probing part of the amendment: to recognise this group of young people aged under 18.
My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Hamwee, I restate my interests in respect of this Bill. Noble Lords will recall the story of the farmyard animals that come up with the idea of rewarding the farmer with an egg and bacon breakfast, to which the pig responds to the chickens, “I’d be committed to this; you’d only be involved.” As a former police officer who dealt with countless cases of domestic abuse during my service, and as a survivor of domestic abuse myself, I very much feel like the pig when it comes to this Bill.
Amendment 1 questions why both perpetrator and victim have to be 16 or over. We understand that, if the victim is under 16, the offence would be child abuse rather than domestic abuse, but not if the perpetrator is under 16 and the victim over 16. For me, the acid test is whether someone is being placed in the intolerable position of not feeling safe in their own home as the result of the abuse. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee has described, this might be the result of the actions of someone who is under 16—elder abuse of a grandmother by a grandchild, for example.
The Minister will acknowledge that increasingly younger children are becoming involved in county lines drug dealing. One of the many worrying aspects of county lines is how children are becoming violent towards their own family members at home as they become embroiled in the savage and ruthless culture of drug gangs, particularly when they are challenged about their behaviour by a parent or guardian. My noble friend described the amendment as probing. On reflection, I believe that it may become increasingly necessary. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, the Bill currently defines domestic abuse as involving two people aged over 16. As has been said, the amendment would expand this definition to include a relationship where one person was under 16 and the other over 16. It appears that the definition would apply where the victim was over 16 but the perpetrator was not. We have doubts about the definition in the Bill being changed in this way, but I understand from what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has said that this is a probing amendment.
Teenage relationships, and the victims of teenage relationship abuse, have specific needs, which should be addressed through a separate strategy tailored to them and recognised as an issue separate from both child abuse and the abuse that takes place between adults. As I said, we recognise that this is a probing amendment, but our concern is that if the age of the perpetrator in the definition is lowered—as appears to be the effect of the amendment in the circumstances set out in it—we would end up prosecuting and treating some perpetrators under 16 as, in effect, adults, which is not a road we believe we should go down. However, the issue of younger person or teenage abuse raised by the amendment is an important one, which the Government should address through a specific strategy and guidance for this group of victims and perpetrators. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response.
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in thanking all the many organisations that have collaborated with us on the Bill to date; communication has been incredibly constructive in virtually all cases. As she said, no one demurs from supporting this Bill; the question for debate is how we get there. I am grateful to her for affording us the opportunity to debate the minimum age of 16 in the definition of domestic abuse.
The amendment would expand the definition of domestic abuse to include a relationship in which person A, the abuser, is aged under 16 and person B, the victim, is aged 16 or over. Clause 1 as drafted provides that the behaviour of person A towards another person, B, is domestic abuse if
“A and B are each aged 16 or over and are personally connected to each other, and … the behaviour is abusive.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, pointed out, abuse in relationships where the victim or both parties are under 16 years of age will be treated as abuse of a child and subject to existing criminal offences, and legislation relevant to safeguarding procedures will be followed. In cases where the abuser is under the age of 16 and their victim is over the age of 16, as in this amendment, appropriate safeguarding responses will be followed which, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has just pointed out, seek to avoid the criminalisation of children.
In cases where one or both parties are under the age of 16, relevant safeguarding measures are already in place through primary legislation to protect children from harm. There is statutory guidance, such as Working Together to Safeguard Children and Keeping Children Safe in Education, which sets out how the definition of harm is applied in practice. Local authorities and all safeguarding agencies are required to have regard to this guidance.
In answer to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, I can say that in 2012 the cross-government definition of domestic abuse was amended to include those aged 16 and 17, following a consultation with the aim of increasing awareness of young people’s experiences of domestic abuse. Then, following the 2018 consultation on domestic abuse, it was clear that strong support for maintaining that age limit of 16 for both parties remained. This view was shared by the Joint Committee which examined the draft Bill. It rightly acknowledged that lowering the minimum age risks conflating different types of harm to children and extending the criminalisation of under-16s—something we must be mindful of, of course, and which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, pointed out. I take the opportunity to reassure the Committee that the Government also recognise the seriousness of domestic abuse between teenagers where both parties are at least 16 years of age.
Under Clause 73, the Secretary of State may issue guidance on the kinds of behaviour that amount to domestic abuse, and must issue guidance on the effect of domestic abuse on children. This guidance will include abusive teenage relationships where the parties are at least 16 years of age and the impacts that these relationships have on victims.
In addition, relationships, sex and health education is now a statutory part of the curriculum. The focus on healthy relationships in both primary and secondary schools will help children and young people who are experiencing or witnessing unhealthy relationships to know where to seek help and report abuse, as well as addressing inappropriate behaviour, harassment, abuse or exploitation. To support schools to deliver lessons on these topics we have developed teacher training materials, which are available on GOV.UK. We are also offering training sessions led by teaching schools. We will have a further opportunity to debate teenage relationship abuse when we reach Amendment 184 at the end of Committee.
I hope that, in light of the explanation I have given in relation to the distinction between child abuse and domestic abuse and the widespread support for maintaining the minimum age of 16 years, the noble Baroness will be happy to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, of course I will withdraw my amendment at this point. However, before I beg leave to do so I want to say that, as my noble friend Lord Paddick has pointed out, what goes on in society changes from time to time. At the moment it is county lines. We need safeguarding responses—I would not dispute that for a moment—but we need to look at what is available for safeguarding and what helps with prevention. I mentioned orders. I will also mention domestic violence protection notices and particularly—depending on what happens as we consider later amendments to the Bill—statutory community support. I would have thought that that might have a role, but would not be available if we confined the definition to two people over 16. I look on those measures as part of a raft of preventive measures. I will continue to think about this as we proceed through the Bill, as obviously this is not divorced from the rest of the Bill. I am not going to attempt to answer the noble and learned Baroness, who brings a different concern to the same wording. For the moment, I beg leave—
Before the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment, I had a very late request from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, to have a word after the Minister. Can we please hear from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick?
My Lords, I want to make a general point: the point of speaking after the Minister is to challenge something that she has said. That may be in the very last sentence that she speaks. Therefore, there should be a pause to allow people who want to challenge the Minister to email before we go to the mover of the amendment.
The Minister says that the perpetrator age should not be less than 16 because the Government want to avoid criminalising children. How is that consistent with the approach that they are taking in the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill? They want to increase penalties for children under that Bill, but apparently do not want to criminalise children in this.
I apologise to the noble Lord. Would the Minister like to come back on that particular point?
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. We might have got the choreography slightly wrong, but I am always amenable to answer questions, even though the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has clearly signalled her intention to withdraw her amendment.
I am not diminishing the seriousness of this compared to children who may involve themselves in terrorism. I will not be dealing with the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, but the noble Lord will know our other legislation—for example, one of the central premises of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 was to ensure that children who took a wrong step in their early years were not criminalised for the rest of their lives. Terrorism has very serious implications on people’s lives—not that domestic abuse does not. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Parkinson, who is sitting beside me, will elucidate further on that when we get to that Bill.
I now apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Would you like to complete your speech please? Do you wish to withdraw your amendment?
Before I do, I would like to say that I asked about this problem; I do not think my noble friend knows that. It is nobody’s fault in the Chamber, but we might write some sort of pause into the procedure. I have asked if the Procedure and Privileges Committee can consider that, because I was caught out last week. I now beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 2. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the Clerk during the debate and anyone wishing to press this or the other amendment in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
2: Clause 1, page 2, line 1, at end insert—
“( ) parental alienation;”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the other to Clause 1 in the name of Baroness Meyer is designed to ensure that in cases where one parent alienates a child from their other parent, which harms the child’s welfare, this is treated as a form of domestic abuse of the other parent.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 2 and 4. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann and Lady Watkins of Tavistock, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for their support.
I would like to start by telling you a story. In 1994 a mother—a British citizen—sent her two sons aged nine and seven to spend their holiday with their father in Germany as per their custody agreement. The children never returned. After four months of separation, in which the father blocked all contact between mother and sons, even on the telephone, they met again at a German family court. The older son greeted the mother by hitting and kicking her. The younger son turned his head away and refused to look at her. When they had set out for Germany, they had been normal loving sons.
This was the beginning of a long separation that lasted for nine years—until the day when the older son, having reached his majority, came to London with his younger brother to see the mother. During those nine years, the mother had a few snatched meetings with her children—a total of 24 hours and always in Germany in the presence of a third party. The children were not allowed to visit her, and the mother was never allowed to reach them on the telephone, even to wish them a happy birthday or a merry Christmas.
The mother went to the courts time and again to find justice—to no avail and to her financial ruin. She was repeatedly blocked by the argument that her sons did not want to see her any more. The argument was sustained by the children’s apparent hostility towards the mother, a hostility instilled by the father’s relentless denigration of the mother and her family.
That mother was me. This is the reality of parental abduction: my lived experience. Today, unlike many fathers and mothers who have suffered in the same way, I am happily reunited with my sons. But make no mistake—it has been a very difficult road. It took more than our years of separation to repair our relationship, and it has scarred me for life. It also led me to create a charity to fight the evil of missing and abducted children and the use of children as weapons of war by one parent against the other. These campaigns led me to be appointed to this noble House and compel me to address this issue today.
There is much debate about parental alienation. Cafcass, which has first-hand experience of dealing with children, defines it as a situation where
“a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”
It is precisely this type of psychological manipulation that should be explicit in the Bill. Parents in abusive relationships should not have to endure what I did, and neither should their children; that is the purpose of these amendments.
There is an argument that these matters fit better in legislation dealing with child abuse. I do not agree—we must distinguish means from ends. The Serious Crime Act 2015 condemns coercive, controlling behaviour in a relationship; what behaviour could be more coercive and controlling than a parent using a child as a means to overwhelm the other parent? It is domestic abuse, fair and square. As his Honour Judge Stephen Wildblood QC put it:
“The problem with Parental Alienation is that it’s not about the child at all. It is about the adults. It is about adult issues. It is not child-focused ... It’s using children as an instrument of that parent’s skewed emotions; it is in every sense wrong”.
I am aware that some in this House are concerned that parental alienation is used by men as a tool to silence victims of domestic abuse, but that is why we have judges: to give careful consideration to all the evidence and distinguish truth from falsehood. Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 tells us to treat the child’s welfare as “paramount”. How can judges possibly do that if they cannot tell the difference between a genuine case of parental alienation, another concocted by an abuser-parent and yet another where a child is justified in accusing a parent of abuse?
From my lived experience as a victim-parent and charity campaigner for 19 years, I can tell noble Lords how easy it is to spot a genuine case of parental alienation. Children who reject a parent because of the harm that the parent has done to them do not display signs of what psychologists call “psychological splitting”, which denotes a child who has been the subject of systematic indoctrination. The defining feature of a parentally alienated child is the intense hostility to, and outright rejection of, the targeted parent. The child’s bifurcation between hostility to the targeted parent and loyalty to the alienating parent is absolute. The process of indoctrination, usually before a court hearing, moves fast. It can take just four months, as it did in my case, and the longer the child is without contact with that parent, the deeper the damage. This is why the courts must intervene quickly to break the creation of this vicious circle; the alternative is to wreck lives and destroy whole families.
I am more than alarmed that the Ministry of Justice should turn to Dr Adrienne Barnett to create
“a literature review to support their inquiry into domestic abuse”.
The good doctor has described parental alienation as a cunning stratagem used by fathers against mothers. Of course, this can be the case, just as much as it can be used by mothers against victim-fathers. I came across plenty of them when I lived in the States, where I ran my charity.
However, that is not the point; there are two serious points here. First, if we allow this issue to become yet another arena for gender war, as Dr Barnett seems to want, it will get in the way of the main objective: to protect all victims of domestic abuse. Secondly, if the Ministry of Justice wants its inquiry to have any credibility, its review must embrace all sources of this contentious issue.
I remind the Minister of the sheer volume of peer-reviewed research by members of the academy, mental health practitioners and judicial officers around the world, which reaches similar conclusions: there is no statistically significant difference between women and men as perpetrators and victims; the effects of parental alienation on children are severe and last into adulthood, and the effects on the victim-parents are equally severe. In summary, parental alienation is child psychological abuse, the collateral damage of domestic abuse. In other words, to quote the Honourable Lady Justice Parker of the High Court’s Family Division:
“Parents who obstruct a relationship with the other parent are inflicting untold damage on their children and it is, in my view, about time that professionals truly understood this.”
All this material appears to have been ignored by the Government—goodness knows why. Perhaps it is because the Ministry of Justice is daunted by the subject’s apparent complexity and is attracted to simplistic and one-sided analysis, such as that of Dr Barnett. What happened to me is the reality of parental abduction. It is not, as some would have it, an ideology or a concept; it is my lived experience and that of thousands and thousands like me, both men and women. It is an almost unbearable experience of grief, sorrow and pain. There is no place for gender politics here.
I beg your Lordships to support these amendments. If we are to put a stop to this evil of parental alienation—and surely we must—it cannot happen until the right legislative framework is in place. The casualties are too many; there are fathers, mothers and children who are damaged forever and those who kill themselves. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I want to apologise for my intervention on Amendment 1, which was quite inappropriate. I stupidly misunderstood, and I apologise.
I support Amendments 2 and 4. False allegations, of the severity of which the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has spoken, are abusive to the other parent, who is the victim—and, of course, they have extremely adverse effects on the children. As a former family judge, I found those cases not only very serious but distressing. In some, it was impossible to achieve an outcome of a relationship between the child and the parent whom the child had been taught to loathe, despise and have nothing to do with. It was very distressing.
It is important, however, to recognise that these are a minority of cases. It is equally important to recognise, as the noble Baroness said, that they can be used as a defence against genuine allegations of domestic abuse. I got an email this morning setting out how a woman had clearly been abused but the man kept telling the court that it was parental alienation and he was not prepared to accept that he had been guilty of abuse.
In the majority of cases, the reason for non-contact or limited contact between a parent and their child should be the implications of domestic abuse. It is important, however, to leave discretion over contact and looking at parental alienation to the judges. The judicial college might consider whether for some judges, at some levels—not the High Court—there is adequate judicial training in this complicated subject. A little more time might be spent teaching magistrates, district judges and circuit judges a little more about it.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill, which is designed to help victims of domestic abuse across the country with comprehensive measures that introduce enhanced protections against, and recognition of the suffering of victims of, many forms of abusive behaviour. I support the aims of the Bill and, alongside many victims, eagerly await its introduction.
I rise to speak to Amendments 2 and 4, to which I have added my name. It is a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and I thank my noble friends on the Front Bench for engaging with us on this issue. I hope we may continue discussions before Report.
The Bill’s first four clauses provide a broad definition of domestic abuse and concentrate on behaviour rather than definitions or syndromes. These amendments were excellently introduced by my noble friend Lady Meyer. The whole Committee must have been moved by her explanation of the way this issue has impacted on her. Clause 1(3) identifies psychological, emotional and other abuse but does not mention the behaviour described in these amendments, which we call alienation or, specifically here, parental alienation. If children are used as a weapon by an abusive parent against another parent and the wider family, this is surely domestic abuse and belongs in the Bill.
A network of leading international and UK experts in several professional fields, after consultation with other professionals and stakeholders involved with parental alienation and child psychological abuse, have produced a paper which we are happy to share with interested noble Lords. It concludes that parental alienation is most readily described as a range of behaviours and is not a syndrome, as some people like to call it. It is both child abuse and domestic abuse, but not a diagnostic label, which supports our aims of identifying it in the Bill.
Parental alienation has been confirmed by Cafcass as being both child abuse and domestic abuse, involving clear coercing and controlling behaviour. Fathers, mothers and other family members can be perpetrators and victims, but the children are always the victims. In its helpful briefing to Peers, Cafcass explains that parental alienation is a description of an array of behaviours, processes and outcomes when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation through a range of abusive behaviours by the other parent.
I recognise that there is controversy surrounding this issue, which saddens me. My noble friend Lady Meyer dealt with a number of the issues that have concerned us, including what appears rather a one-sided assessment of the case against parental alienation. Of course, it is possible that abusive fathers will use this in the context of family courts to commit further abuse against a mother trying to protect her children, but the Bill is about domestic abuse; fears of allegations being falsely made are inherent in much legislation yet surely cannot be a reason to decline to legislate.
Responsible legislators must not be biased in favour of one group or another but should be mindful of the broad sweep of issues that need to be considered. Even if there are egregious examples of women being abused by this kind of alienation, there are many men, and children and wider families, who also need protection against this abuse. It is important that each allegation is carefully examined by the court at an early stage. Sometimes, there is both psychological abuse by alienation and physical or sexual abuse in the same family. But there is a lack of reliable evidence—as opposed to anecdotes by parents who may regard court decisions wrong—that men or women are more likely to raise false allegations, or that courts systemically prefer fathers or mothers. Therefore, what is relevant, and beneficial to the Bill, is to require proper exploration of alienating behaviours, so that these can be observed by mental health professionals, together with family judges and lawyers across the UK in identifying cases where parental alienation or alienating behaviours have occurred.
I agree with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that it would be helpful to have enhanced judicial training to identify and understand these behaviours, but it is essential that qualified professionals assist the court with assessing whether there is this type of abuse and identifying problems of alienation at an early stage, before the psychological impact becomes ingrained in children and does dreadful long-term damage, which has been described as being associated with this issue. I hope we may discuss this further with other noble Lords and the ministerial team to make progress on this matter for Report.
My Lords, I must apologise to your Lordships’ House for not being able to speak at Second Reading. In the 10 years that I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships’ House, I have from the start focused on the despicable behaviour of those who harass, stalk, and coercively control their current or former partners. This Bill recognises so many of the agonies that victims of domestic abuse have faced, whether male or female, including by at last recognising that children themselves can also be victims of domestic abuse and coercive control.
Over those years, we have succeeded in getting much of this behaviour recognised in the criminal system through reforms of the stalking laws and clear definitions of coercive control, but there remain problems in both the family and private courts. I was pleased to hear the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, mention again the need for judicial training on this, as what I am going to say reflects the fact that far too few judges have had the training they need to understand these difficult and complex issues. That is why, I am afraid, I am going to disagree with Amendments 2 and 4, despite the moving speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and the fact that child abduction can never, ever be right.
Your Lordships’ House has a special role in scrutinising legislation, a duty that it carries out with due care. I am sure that the movers of this amendment are sincere in their belief that such a definition would be helpful, but I and others think that it would not be, principally because parental alienation remains a controversial subject, as previous speakers have mentioned. There is no commonly accepted definition, no reliable data on its prevalence, and a lack of peer-reviewed and robust academic studies to give confidence in any such definition.
It is worth noting that these moves are unanimously opposed by all of the victims’ and domestic abuse commissioners, as well as domestic abuse charities, and I thank them all for their briefings. They tell us that there is worrying evidence that the concept of parental alienation has gained a significant foothold in the UK family courts and is already being used in judgments relating to child safety. Worse, there is also alarming evidence that the fears of false allegations of parental alienation are becoming a barrier to victims of abuse telling the courts about their experience. The Ministry of Justice report, Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases, published in June 2020, makes that plain.
The report received deeply concerning evidence that fears of parental alienation are directly supressing allegations of domestic abuse. The review received several submissions which highlighted how
“victims were advised by professionals, including their own lawyers, not to raise domestic abuse because the courts would take a negative view of this and it may be used against them as evidence of parental alienation or hostility to co-parenting.”
The strength and dominance of allegations of parental alienation are, I am afraid, now beginning to shape the legal advice being given to survivors of domestic abuse and coercive control.
Among its recommendations, the Ministry of Justice report says that
“the Child Arrangements Programme should incorporate a procedure for identifying abusive applications and managing them swiftly to a summary conclusion.”
“Fears of false allegations of parental alienation are clearly a barrier to victims of abuse telling the courts about their experiences.”
Inexplicably, the phrase “parental alienation” has been included in draft statutory guidance for the Bill as a form of coercive control, despite not appearing anywhere in coercive control legislation. Will the Minister ensure that this reference to parental alienation is also removed from the draft statutory guidance?
Why are there such concerns about parental alienation on the part of those who are experts in domestic abuse? They are seeing a direct relationship between allegations of parental alienation and potentially unsafe child contact or residence arrangements. Some parental alienation experts recommend dramatic measures to treat this alienation, including a 90-day deprogramming window in which the child is placed with the allegedly alienated parent and is allowed no contact the with alleged alienator. In reality, this means that many children are placed with parents they are afraid of—whether that is rational or not—who are alleged abusers and whom the children often directly state opposition to living with. This is a deeply distressing intervention for the child and the parent who may have lost custody, who is given no knowledge of their child’s welfare during this time.
There are experts whose views I trust, and whom I hope the House will hear. Nicole Jacobs, the designate domestic abuse commissioner, has said:
“I am increasingly concerned about the potential for the idea of ‘parental alienation’ to be weaponised by perpetrators of domestic abuse to silence their victims within the Family Court. So much more must be done to improve the understanding of domestic abuse within the Family Court, which is the single most common issue that victims and survivors contact me about. I have heard of some terrible examples where the Family Court fails victims and survivors of domestic abuse, and addressing these will be a top priority for me and my Office.”
Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, says:
“The government has now recognised that children are victims of domestic abuse not bystanders and that they too suffer harm from the abusing parent. That cannot now be ignored and their future entrusted to a parent who has already harmed them. Any courts who entertain this notion”
of parental alienation
“will do huge damage to justice and damage to large numbers of children who are already suffering from their abuser’s behaviour. This Bill must not recognise any validity in this groundless notion. In every case about the welfare of children the evidence is what matters. The courts must guard against the well-known phenomenon that they are used as a further tool of abuse by manipulative domestic abuse perpetrators”.
The Women’s Aid Federation of England says:
“Parental alienation is increasingly used in the family courts, but there is a dearth of robust evidence to back up the concept or reliable data on its prevalence. The ‘pro-contact’ culture in the family courts means that parents are expected to facilitate contact, even if they have concerns about safety. It also means that allegations of parental alienation—where one parent is accused of encouraging their child to resist contact with the other parent—can be taken more seriously than allegations of domestic abuse and other forms of harm. Theories of parental alienation should never be accepted without analysis of the impact they have on survivors of domestic abuse and their children.”
It is also worthy of note that, having adopted a definition of parental alienation, the World Health Organization has now agreed to remove any reference to it.
I agree with the concerns expressed in the Ministry of Justice report, by the various commissioners working with victims of domestic abuse and coercive control, and by the organisations supporting victims. I hope that the Minister will also agree that there is no place in this Bill or its statutory guidance for a concept without a robust evidential basis, or one that can be used by perpetrators to continue their abuse of their former partner and children.
My Lords, I added my name to these amendments because I feel strongly that we are not picking up domestic abuse early enough in the process. Part of that is a failure to identify and become aware of the forms of abusive behaviour for what they are. One of the most important aspects of the break-up of a relationship is the effect on children, as they can be terribly damaged through that process. The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has given us a moving description of her experiences, and I pay tribute to all those who have written to me for and against these amendments. I respect what they say.
My strong feeling is that by the time domestic abuse cases get to the courts, views are already polarised, resentments are deep-seated and entrenched, and an intensely adversarial legal system is in play. Anything not proscribed by law seems to be fair game, and the outcomes are all too often a matter of sweeping up the broken fragments of family relationships as tidily as possible.
We know that one of the problems is parental alienation. I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has said; her experience is far and away ahead of mine. One of the reasons it is not picked up at an early enough stage is the absence of an identity that would trigger intervention and appropriate support long before matters came to the formal attention of the police or the jurisdiction of the courts. We know that this is one of the reasons why certain domestic abuse instances are not recorded at all. I acknowledge that the spectrum of such abusive behaviour is enormous, labyrinthine and often a matter of controversy among experts, but signposting this for earlier intervention seems an unassailable point.
I have seen, read and listened to objections to the term “parental alienation”, but lack of definition or labelling—or, for that matter, the awareness that goes with that—does not make the problem cease to exist. It is quite clear that it does. As I just said, I see as one of the problems the nature of the judicial and adversarial process that must be dealt with. I make no criticism of the judiciary, which has to pick its way through enormously complex issues and try to find the best way forward for the parents and particularly the children. It concerns me that, if we do not have a definition, the abuses that have been described and the excuses, particularly of male partners against female partners that the female is indulging in parental alienation of children, will not go away or in some way become less likely.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, suggests that parental alienation is readily identifiable. I cannot speak to that but, from my own observations, I agree. From what I have seen from many who have written to me, it is an identifiable condition. I appreciate that it is complex and multifaceted, but I think we all know, on a results basis, what it means in practice.
This is not just a definition for lawyers and the courts of when things have got to that terrible stage of events when everybody has dug themselves into their positions and every sort of lever and form of manipulation is being used in the cause by one side or the other, but a definition for everybody—particularly upstream of those situations where, as the Domestic Homicide Review has identified, available signs indicated that there were problems which could and should have been picked up. That keeps cropping up. I believe the same is true for parental alienation, as a component in what is quite clearly a larger pattern of abuse.
That is why I support these amendments—primarily because children are caught in the middle here. They are being used as part of the process of leveraging some sort of advantage by one partner against the other. That must stop. It must be identified as offensive, save in circumstances where it is demonstrated that it is being done with the best interests of the child unequivocally in mind—for instance, where there is clear evidence of physical or other sorts of abuse of that nature and something must be done. That is why I support these amendments and have put my name to them.
My Lords, I support the amendments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and others. She spoke very powerfully from her own experience, but it is obvious even to those with only limited experience, drawn from those they know are going through divorces, that how a parent speaks of and encourages their children to speak of the partner from whom they are estranged is one of the challenges facing a divorcing couple, if not the major one.
A parent who loves their child wants not only to keep their child’s love; in return, they want that child to think and speak well of them. There must be a severe temptation, even for the most altruistic parent, if they believe their partner has terrible faults, to draw these to the attention of their children. Thank goodness there are very many divorcing couples who resist that temptation. They want good parenting to continue after the divorce by both parents; whatever they feel, they try not to let this influence their child in their relations with the other parent. However, the temptation to speak negatively about the estranged partner to their children must be severe in some cases, and sadly some actively encourage hostility. We know that a child’s expressed wishes can sometimes be the result of indoctrination by one parent against the other to sever the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.
I have read the evidence of Women’s Aid and listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. They have worries about these amendments. They are properly concerned that such amendments, if passed, might result in allegations of child abuse not being taken as seriously as they should, and clearly that argument needs to be weighed with due seriousness during the passage of this Bill. However, it seems to me that what is put forward in Amendments 2 and 4 does not in any way depend on evidence that something is discredited, but on a realistic recognition of how embattled couples too often operate. I believe that, difficult though it is, specialists in child abuse, who could be called into court if necessary, would be able to distinguish this from a situation where one parent is clearly using their child as a weapon. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has said, if the judges are given adequate training, they too would be able, in their wisdom and experience, clearly to distinguish the one from the other.
We need a clear marker in law that some ways of alienating children from the other parent are totally unacceptable and need to be shown to be clearly illegal. I believe this is best seen not as a form of child abuse but as an aspect of domestic abuse. There may be child abuse in some cases, but this does not take away from the fact that some parents, while not guilty of abuse, alienate their children from the other parent.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the Government on this Bill, particularly the recognition that children are also victims of domestic abuse when witnessing abuse, often between parents. I support Amendment 2, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and her supporters, and Amendment 4, to which I have added my name.
In briefings from some quarters, there is disagreement on the inclusion of parental alienation in this Bill. It is argued that this is because there is as yet no clear definition of the term. The issues have been very ably outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. However, I believe that a lack of definition merely means we are in the process of making much greater—[Inaudible.]
Lady Watkins, we have lost you—we can see you, but we cannot hear you. I think we will carry on and hopefully come back to the noble Baroness later, if she will forgive us. I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Helic.
I thank my noble friend Lady Meyer for her moving and courageous contribution based on her personal experience. However, I am unable to support Amendments 2 and 4.
I wish to focus my remarks on the deliberate misuse of allegations of parental alienation as a tactic to minimise or cover up serious allegations of domestic violence and abuse; in other words, allegations which direct attention away from an abusive parent onto a protective parent. We must guard against them becoming a loophole, or a get-out-of-jail card, in our law, in a way which makes it even harder for victims of domestic abuse—whether male or female, young or old—to receive protection, medical and emotional care, and justice.
The concept at the heart of the amendments put forward by my noble friend emerged in the United States during the 1970s. The core idea was that, if a child appeared afraid of one of their parents, or did not want to spend time with them, this was the result of pathology, rather than a possible reaction to that parent’s behaviour. This theory was developed in the 1980s by psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who came up with the term “parental alienation syndrome”. Gardner believed that almost all children in custody litigation suffered from this supposed syndrome. To treat it, he recommended de-programming therapy, which denied maternal contact in order to change a child’s belief that they had been abused. To be clear, he thought that children should be forced to live with a parent whom they said abused them.
While the term “parental alienation syndrome” has fallen from fashion, theories of parental alienation, alienation, and children who resist or refuse contact are all grounded in the same ideas. And just like parental alienation syndrome, these new terms are based on weak evidence, founded mainly on clinical observation rather than empirical academic studies. The World Health Organization has also dropped the concept from its index and classification altogether.
While there is very little evidence for parental alienation, there are clear studies which demonstrate the gendered assumptions and myths underlying it. A recent American study published a few months ago found not only that 82% of the alienation claims analysed were brought by fathers but that fathers were more than twice as likely than mothers to win their cases when claiming alienation, and that fathers’ claims of alienation were far more likely to result in a change of residency than mothers’ claims. Parental alienation is not just bad science; it is bad science biased against women.
Despite this, the idea of parental alienation persists in public discussion and has gained traction in some parts of the family justice system, particularly regarding parental alienation experts being instructed in cases. But these so-called experts, who often have very limited credentials, are still referring to Gardner’s discredited theories and recommending transfers of residence from mothers to fathers. This has the potential to cause real harm. The Cafcass Cymru review noted that
“the label parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has been likened to a ‘nuclear weapon’ that can be exploited within the adversarial legal system in the battle for child residence”.
Yet these damaging ideas are now being proposed for inclusion within the statutory definition in the Bill.
The Bill is meant to tackle domestic violence, but as that quote warned, perpetrators of domestic abuse use this discredited theory to undermine non-abusive parents. This tactic has been highlighted by specialist domestic abuse organisations for more than a decade. There is clear research highlighting the links between domestic abuse and parental alienation allegations. A Canadian study looking at cases involving parental alienation accusations found that 42% also featured allegations of domestic or child abuse. In almost four-fifths of these cases, the parental alienation allegation was made by the alleged perpetrator of domestic or child abuse against the non-abusive parent.
Domestic abuse experts are clear about what is happening. Parental alienation is being used as a stock response to any allegation of domestic abuse. In contrast to the weak evidence base for parental alienation, the pattern of it being used like this by perpetrators is found in research from across the world, including the United States, Spain, Italy, Australia and New Zealand. It is also seen here in the United Kingdom. Survivors who directly contacted me have described this happening, and their experiences are echoed in the reports of organisations such as Women’s Aid, front-line services, and survivor campaigners. Dr Adrienne Barnett, a leading expert from Brunel University, has studied child contact cases in England and Wales, and found that 50% of the cases she looked at which involved allegations of parental alienation also involved domestic abuse allegations. Yet researchers and survivors tell us that if children are alienated, this is almost always interpreted by the courts as evidence of manipulation and parental alienation, and never as the alternative: that the parent has been abusive and alienated the child through their own actions.
These findings are confirmed by the Ministry of Justice’s expert panel review, which reported in June 2020. It warned that the pro-contact culture of the courts makes them receptive to accusations of parental alienation whenever concerns over child safety are raised. Alarmingly, parental alienation is then taken more seriously than allegations of domestic abuse. The expert panel made a number of recommendations which are in the process of being considered and implemented, but it is safe to say that this amendment would have a negative impact on this work.
Above all, we must not overlook the impact on children. On the basis of discredited science, children are being forced to live with abusers. Indeed, the theory and practice of parental alienation run counter to many of the advances that have been made in recent years, and in this Bill, when it comes to children and abuse. We increasingly recognise the importance of the voice of the child, and that children are victims of domestic abuse in their own right, and not just as bystanders. Yet the concept of parental alienation strips them of all agency and denies that they can really be suffering harm as a result of abuse—that suffering must be something dreamed up by their mother; an idea with which they have been brainwashed.
Nobody denies that there may be cases where abuse is falsely alleged, or where parents try to control their children’s affections. But it is already the job—the daily bread and butter—of the courts to determine whether allegations are true or not. In so far as there is genuinely abusive behaviour covered under the vague label of parental alienation, it would be covered by the much tighter and better evidenced concept of coercive control. Introducing parental alienation into the mix does not safeguard against abuse or protect against some heinous crime; it allows an allegation of a discredited concept to have equal or even greater weight than an allegation of domestic abuse, which we know is associated with significant harm to children.
The definition of domestic abuse in this Bill will be critical for improving responses for survivors and children experiencing domestic abuse. It is vital that it does not include concepts without a robust basis in evidence. There is no convincing evidence for theories of parental alienation. There is evidence, however, that they are used to counter domestic abuse allegations and that they risk causing great harm to survivors of domestic abuse, including children. I hope that my noble friend will consider withdrawing her amendment.
My Lords, I think we may have the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, back again. Perhaps she would like to continue with what she was saying.
Taking this into consideration, it is clear that these amendments are designed to ensure that, if one parent alienates a child from the other, this may be treated as a form of domestic abuse based on a clear definition of parental alienation. The amendments have at their heart the prime consideration of the child’s welfare, consistent with the Cafcass definition. However, such an allegation must take into account the child’s perspective of the situation, not just that of both parents. Children’s voices of concern for, or fear about, a parent must be considered when making arrangements for access with either parent.
Sometimes it is appropriate to cease access between a child and parent for the child’s protection and well-being. However, should that parent receive help and become more stable—perhaps in their personal health and well-being—access to their children should be reconsidered and attempts made to establish some level of relationship, subject, of course, to the child’s welfare being paramount.
These amendments are designed to enable such an approach. The UK Parental Alienation Study of 2020, conducted by Good Egg Safety CIC, involved 1,500 parents, almost half of whom had not seen their children in the previous six months. It is quite a sobering thought for many of us who are parents that, in some instances, family separation can be deeply harmful and could cause significant long-term harm to children. For these reasons I support the amendments.
My Lords, I take a moment to praise the powerful speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, with which I entirely concur.
As a Green, being lobbied from a wide variety of perspectives on the linked Amendments 2 and 4 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, the obvious place to start was with the evidence, so I asked the House of Lords Library for a survey of the peer-reviewed research. The conclusions of that evidence—the concern that the concept of parental alienation had been dangerously overdeveloped and overused—were clear. An entire issue of the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law is dedicated to this subject. The introduction states that,
“experts in the field of domestic and family violence have expressed serious concerns regarding the recourse to the concept of parental alienation by family court and child protection services. In the context of domestic and family violence, women may have well-grounded reasons to want to limit father-child contact … However, with a ‘parental alienation’ lens, women’s and children’s concerns are likely to be seen as invalid and as a manifestation of the mother’s hostility and alienating behaviours.”
That quote, and my views, reflect the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and I also associate myself with her concerns about the current uses in the courts. I support her call for the removal of the reference to parental alienation in the draft statutory guidance for the Bill. That is not the conclusion of just one journal; it is reflected in other articles in a range of journals, including the Family Court Review, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, and the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.
The introduction from the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, is an atypical account. The whole basis of claims of parental alienation is, in general, highly gendered. It claims that what women are saying cannot be trusted and relied upon. The pervasiveness of this was also evident in the conclusions of the brilliant Cumberlege report into medical devices and practices causing harm mostly to female patients and their concerns not being listened to.
That is the evidence, but I also want to go to fundamental principles. I believe in trusting individuals, in believing their capacity to make choices and decisions for themselves. That is a foundation of Green political thought. Inherent in the claims of parental alienation is the assumption that children can be turned against one parent by another, an assumption reflecting the hypodermic syringe theory of communication: that a message delivered will be 100% absorbed, believed and acted upon. This is a false consciousness argument, a claim that people do not understand their own circumstances and situations. Trusting individuals includes trusting, and listening to, children. Failure to do that has been a huge issue in many recent, tragic child sexual abuse scandals.
Votes at 16 is a long-term Green Party policy, but I regularly speak to school and community groups much younger than that who have very clear views and understandings that they have developed by themselves, through thought, research and consideration. The exam-factory model of schooling, to which successive Governments have been so attached, has not succeeded in destroying this. I believe very strongly that children need to be consulted and listened to by the courts and professionals when decisions are being made about their lives.
This brings me finally to acknowledge that we are all shaped by our own lives and experiences and should be open about and declare them. There is no such thing as an unbiased observer—in science, social science or politics. I know about this from personal experience. As a child, I was subjected to an attempt by a grandparent to alienate me from other members of my family. I rejected that, turned against it, understood what was being done to me and resisted from a very young age. In today’s debate, I will be listening to and relying on the peer-reviewed evidence, but also reflecting my own life understanding, in speaking against the inclusion of parental alienation in the Bill, because the whole approach fails to listen to women and children particularly and is not based on evidence.
My Lords, I begin with an apology: I was unable to take part at Second Reading of this important Bill, a Bill on which I, like others, congratulate the Government. Unlike much of our discussion and debate in this House, this is a real debate, with passionate views, strongly and sincerely held, being expressed on both sides of the argument.
I come to this from a background of 40 years as a constituency MP. Throughout that time, I held frequent and regular advice surgeries—at least a couple a month. I was always most distressed and least able to help when people brought their parental and marital difficulties to me. Whenever I saw people to discuss these things, I became convinced that, in almost every case, the victims were the children. When there is a separation or break-up of a marriage, long-term relationship or anything else, it is the children who always suffer, regardless of the “blame” attached to either side. Other noble Lords will have shared these experiences, which were the most difficult—indeed impossible—to resolve adequately, properly and fairly.
Some years ago, when I was in the United States with the Foreign Affairs Committee of another place, I met someone who felt passionately about this issue. In the margins of our meetings, she explained to me the cause that she was championing and gave me some of the details of why she was doing so. That person was the wife of our then American ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer, and is now our much-admired colleague in your Lordships’ House. She spoke today with passionate intensity; it was a very moving speech.
I was minded to say that I would of course support these amendments. I support so much of what is behind them, but I cannot ignore the powerful speeches from the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Helic, or from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, a few moments ago. I am very persuaded by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who knows perhaps more than any of us about marital problems and difficulties from her work in the family court. Although she spoke so briefly but movingly, this is something we must not dismiss.
I wonder whether the Bill is the right vehicle at the moment. I am not saying that I am persuaded that it is not; I shall talk and read more after today’s debate, but one body is frequently derided in the modern age: the royal commission. I wonder whether a royal commission to look into these things, to weigh the conflicting academic and other evidence, might not offer a positive and helpful way forward. There is no doubt that both my noble friends Lady Meyer and Lady Helic would be more than well equipped to give powerful evidence to such a body—as would others; we have all had representations on both sides of the argument.
There is nothing worse than polluting the mind of a child and weaponising and indoctrinating a child, particularly doing it with the intention of discrediting the other parent. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to enjoy very long marriages and see our children likewise enjoy long marriages have no real idea of just how devastating the sort of situation that my noble friend Lady Meyer described can be. We can only listen with sympathy and regard. We can empathise to the best of our ability, but we have not been there and we do not know that. However, I think that it would be very sensible for a royal commission to look into this. Royal commissions do not always have to, in the words of the late Lord Wilson, take minutes and sit for years. A small group of very experienced lawyers and others could pronounce on this in a fairly short timescale.
For the moment, I reserve my position on this amendment. I want to listen to what others say in this debate and when we come to Report, but I ask my noble friend who will reply from the Front Bench at least to reflect on the suggestion I have put forward and see whether it offers us a way to achieve what my noble friend Lady Meyer would have us achieve without some of the dangers talked about so powerfully by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and my noble friend Lady Helic.
I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lord Cormack, and I agree with him, but my overriding concerns are for children. As I stated at Second Reading, I warmly welcome the step that the Government made to ensure that the children of victims of domestic abuse are duly recognised in the definition. The moving and in many ways deeply tragic stories so compassionately told by my noble friend Lady Meyer are an important lesson for all of us as we embark on five days of debate on this vital legislation. Sadly, we will all have stories. We all know of situations and we all know people affected, but overridingly we need to find ways to put a stop to the cycle of abuse. That is why I have so much sympathy for the aims of my noble friend’s amendments. It seems pretty clear to me that a child who has experienced parental alienation should be included as a victim of domestic abuse.
Like many noble Lords, I have received many briefings and personal testimonies. One in particular that arrived in my in-box saddened me on this important issue of parental alienation. It is not good enough for opponents somehow to pretend that either it does not happen or, as my noble friend Lady Helic asserted at Second Reading, to refer to the concept of “so-called” parental alienation. As my noble friend Lady Meyer clearly outlined, it can and does happen, and it is sadly so much more than a concept.
I was contacted and told the following story: “I was the victim of domestic abuse in 2006. I and my two children, aged three and five months, left the family home with the help of Women’s Aid. The father has used coercive control consistently since then, calling the police and the social services to say that I am abusing the children. It is always completely unfounded. In 2013, he decided to terminate all contact. He reappeared last year, and has now completely alienated my precious, loving 15 year-old son.” The story continued.
We must not neglect children who are suffering from the absence of a beloved parent due to manipulation by another parent. My noble friend Lady Meyer is quite right to say that parental alienation is not an ideology or a concept. It is real. I will be interested if the Minister can explain why alienation does not fit into Clause 1(3), which refers to,
“physical or sexual abuse … violent or threatening behaviour … controlling or coercive behaviour … economic abuse … psychological, emotional or other abuse.”
Could paragraph (c) not read “controlling, alienating or coercive behaviour”?
My Lords, I, too, wish to commend the Minister on bringing this solid piece of legislation before the House and getting it to this stage. However, I rise to speak in support of these two amendments and commend those who tabled them and brought them before the House. I know the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, speaks with personal knowledge on this issue, having listened to her on another occasion and to what she has said today. When someone refers to their personal experience, I think it is always prudent, has a lot of merit and deserves a lot of close attention.
I want to address my comments today to the narrow issue of parental alienation. I am aware that this legislation applies primarily to England and Wales, not Northern Ireland. However, it is important that all parts of the UK are able to move forward with these protections as soon as possible. A gap in legislation was created when the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended. My DUP colleagues and I will support the amendment in the event of the Committee dividing. It would insert parental alienation into the definition of domestic abuse in Clause 1.
Sadly, we live in a society today where there are thousands of parents who do not have any relationship with their children, and in some of these cases simply because one parent, for no good reason, turned their child against them. This amounts to abuse and is debilitating. Parental alienation is a serious, deliberate manipulation of a child by one parent against the other parent. Of course, it can take many forms, including speaking negatively to the child about the other parent, reducing and controlling the child’s contact with the other parent, cancelling contact at the last minute and forbidding the child to talk about the other parent.
The effects can be life-changing. A child may believe that their parent is bad and dangerous. This can adversely affect a child’s mental health in later years. The child can be left bereft of the love, compassion and guidance of a parent. The alienated parent cannot share key milestones in their child’s life. I do not think it is possible to overstress the importance and influence of parents in their children’s life. Often by the time alienation has been proven through the courts it is much too late to encourage a child to see his or her other parent. Clinical depression, anxiety, fractured attachments, suicide ideation, deliberate self-harm, alcohol abuse, premature sexual activity and academic underachievement may have already occurred.
The sweeping generalisation that parental alienation is a concept being used by fathers as a tool to silence female victims of domestic violence is not accurate. There is a real risk that those advocating that position will neglect the needs of those men and women who do not have convictions for domestic violence or other offences but have been cut off from contact with their children and grievously miss them.
However, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not in any way seeking to challenge cases where a child has valid reasons for rejecting a parent, such as abuse or neglect, or where they have been unavailable to a child due to a prolonged period of addiction or of working overseas. My understanding of these amendments is that they are focused on situations where children become alienated through no fault of the affected parent, so it is critical that the Committee recognises that the harm caused in these cases is not restricted to abuse of a child. We should not ignore the fact that there is a range of motivating factors and circumstances involved in parental alienation, but I consider it appropriate to place it within the domestic abuse legislation as it victimises both parent and child.
I recognise and welcome that the Minister has already taken steps to classify parental alienation as an example of the psychological abuse in draft statutory guidance accompanying the Bill. On balance, however, I do not believe that this represents a level of protection or impetus that full legislative protection would provide.
My party, the DUP, has some concern around whether parental alienation will receive the attention it deserves in training and guidance on criminal behaviours without it being specifically stipulated as an offence in the Bill. Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly raised similar points during the development of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill. We must ensure that there is knowledge, understanding and application of domestic abuse law as it relates to parental alienation.
We are mindful that these amendments and the Bill in general would address only issues relating to parental alienation at the point at which harm has been caused. While it may dissuade such behaviour in the future, we also recognise that prevention and earlier and better support for parents—and between parents and children—are key to improving long-term outcomes for children and families. There is a need for better collaboration between health and justice departments right across the UK in respect of this and specific policies on alienation.
My Lords, I support the Bill. The mental and physical damage of domestic abuse goes far beyond the pain and anguish caused at the time it occurs and stays with the victims and their families for many years, if not for the rest of their lives. It is important that we do all we can in this legislation to help victims to get out of abusive relationships and rebuild their lives.
I speak to Amendments 2 and 4, which propose to add parental alienation to the definition of abusive behaviour and therefore to every provision of the Bill. I fear that the proposed amendments may undo much of the work that the Bill seeks to do to protect victims of domestic abuse by swinging the pendulum of control back to the perpetrator of domestic abuse, rather than the victim, in making counterallegations.
Without meaning to sound flippant, at its extreme, any parent going through a break-up or divorce could find themselves of accused of domestic abuse under the Bill, and that is not what the Bill is intended for. I wonder whether the concern of the noble Lords who tabled these amendments is already covered by the combination of Clause 1(3)(e) and Clause 1(5). Alternatively, if the noble Lords behind the amendments have a specific instance in mind, they should look at where that could be catered for in specific clauses, but not as a wholesale change to the entire Bill in this way.
I can see these amendments having massive unintended consequences if they are included. I urge the Committee to accept neither change, to maintain the integrity of the Bill.
My Lords, I speak to Amendments 2 and 4 on parental alienation. As the former Victims’ Commissioner, over the years, I have spoken to many domestic abuse victim survivors, and I have spoken about parental alienation. I know that this issue has been raised several times over many years from several parts of the country. No doubt like others in this House, I have been inundated with briefings and emails from domestic abuse organisations and victim survivors.
Most recently, we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and my noble friends, the domestic abuse commissioner, the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, and the London victims’ commissioner, Claire Waxman, who all say that they are very concerned about parental alienation. As we have heard, the domestic abuse commissioner is very concerned about giving perpetrators of domestic abuse a weapon to silence their victims in the family courts.
Submissions to a Ministry of Justice report last year made it plain that parental alienation is a barrier to victims of abuse. Current practices around parental alienation expose domestic abuse survivors and their children to further harm. Once again, silencing the victims of abuse and erasing the voice of children in the courts leads to their being regularly misunderstood or overlooked.
The criminal justice system and the justice system have been part of my DNA since 2007, so it does not sit comfortably with me to say that I also disagree with the amendments. However, hand on heart, I say to my noble friend Lady Meyer that her speech was very emotional, heartfelt and powerful. The justice system is a very lonely place to be. It still feels very lonely, clinical and unemotional and my voice is unheard as I go through it every day. I agree with my noble friend Lady Helic and the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Parental alienation creates a loophole. It poses a huge threat to the validity of the Bill and will ultimately expose the survivors to the very harm that the Bill is designed to prevent. That is why I cannot support the amendments and ask my noble friends to withdraw or not to move them.
My Lords, I am sympathetic to the amendments, with some caveats. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for her amendments, which are important for us to address. They may give us an insight into some of the broader issues of the Bill.
One point of emphasis in the legislation is the victim. Contemporary culture tells us that we should believe the victim. I understand that for those of us frustrated over the years that domestic abuse was not taken seriously as a heinous crime, and sometimes dismissed when reported, leading to tragic consequences, it seems reasonable to be victim-centred—to put the victim centre-stage. However, my concern is to ensure that due process is not neglected in this endeavour and that we have nuance when we discuss who is the victim.
We know from recent events, such as the egregious case of Carl Beech, that believing the victim per se can lead to false allegations with terrible consequences. In the context of domestic break-ups and family issues, sometimes when the bitterness of broken relationships centres, for example, on the custody of children—we have heard many examples here today—ironically, or sadly, accusations of domestic abuse itself can be deployed and weaponised to paint one party as a perpetrator and another as a victim, alienating the accused parent from their children, but without any proof of guilt; it is just an allegation.
However, that allegation or accusation of domestic abuse in that instance is a terrible stigma. Imagine that your mum or dad is labelled an abuser by the other parent. That can obviously lead to great pain and parental alienation, all without anyone’s guilt being proven. I just want to remind the Committee of the important principle of innocent until proven guilty and make sure that is not sidelined.
Ironically, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, claims that the very concept of parental alienation can be misused and lead to false allegations and, of course, she is right. But that is true of any piece of legislation, or any rule. Parental alienation can be falsely alleged but so can domestic abuse, but we do not suggest that we should not have legislation on that.
We might ask why in this debate we are so cynical and disbelieving of those who claim that they are victims of parental alienation. That seems very one-sided in a culture where we are told that we should believe the victims all the time. It is a reminder that claiming to be a victim is not proof and needs to be evidenced; that is not just in relation to the one issue of parental alienation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, tells us that fathers are the majority who claim parental alienation, and then seemed to imply that this was proof of the misuse of the concept by perpetrators. To be fair, that seemed to suggest that fathers were perpetrators of domestic abuse, which, as I say, is an accusation that goes too far for me. It reinforces my worry that there is a bias against one parent—often gendered—based less on evidence than on prejudice. I say that not as a men’s rights activist, as somebody accused me of being the other day when I made this point, but as a women’s rights activist who thinks that we should be fair in this discussion.
Despite all that, I am unsure about whether the resolution to my concerns, or even to the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, is to give parental alienation the statutory label of domestic abuse. Another of my issues—which I think is understandable—is that, in an attempt to broaden what constitutes domestic abuse from physical violence to include the likes of coercive control, I get concerned and wary of overexpanding the definition, because that can relativise the harm of serious abuse by conflating it with a range of behaviours that might occur when interpersonal relationships turn toxic.
Throughout Committee, I will be wary of criminalising behaviours that are subjective or disputed and areas where the law is not best suited to resolve it, and I am not sure where I fit in relation to parental alienation. Putting too much under the label of domestic abuse can ironically weaken the opprobrium that we attach to it, by making it a category that is too thinly stretched—a catch-all and not as useful as we would want it to be. Justice might be compromised and it might make it easier to weaponise domestic abuse as an accusation and deploy it against others.
I feel ambivalent about putting parental alienation into that ever-expanding label of domestic abuse, but I am wholly sympathetic to the arguments that accusing a partner or a carer of something like domestic abuse can be used maliciously. It does happen for other ends, and it is at great cost to family relationships and especially to children. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that parental alienation is not a discredited category but one she takes seriously, and that we can consider how we make it part of the Bill without expanding domestic abuse too broadly.
My Lords, I want to speak in support of Amendments 2 and 4 tabled by my noble friend Lady Meyer. I remember being horrified when I first heard her personal story, many years ago. But since then, I have learned and seen that this is not an isolated incident, unfortunately.
As we have heard, while there is no single definition of parental alienation, it is recognised by Cafcass as when
“a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is”,
“the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”
It has devastating impacts on the child, but is a form of abuse and control of the other parent and in line with emotional abuse of a controlling and coercive nature.
As I have listened to this debate unfold, I have thought back to the battle that has taken place over a long time to include coercion in our definition of domestic abuse, and to recognise children as victims. I hope that it does not take as long for us to wake up to include parental alienation.
No one wants their relationship to break down but, when it does, both parents are responsible for the healthy development of their child. This includes promoting a proper, loving relationship, which includes frequent, regular contact between the child, both parents and their extended families.
Alienation adversely affects the psychological development of a child, as it prevents a natural, healthy bond and relationship with a parent. A child needs to be nurtured and protected; that is especially true of a baby. At a time of total dependence, a mother’s physical and emotional presence regulates the baby’s fear response and overproduction of adrenaline and cortisol. Brain scans of toddlers who have experienced abuse and been deprived of emotional nurturing were shown to have disproportionately large and active limbic systems. As a result, these “fight or flight” hormones remain in the body and the child is in a constant state of anxiety and distress, not dissimilar to a soldier suffering from PTSD.
But it is equally important that the child has a relationship with their father. This is not a gendered issue. A major study in the Journal of Applied Economics, “The Impact of Income and Family Structure on Delinquency”, found that when interactions between a child and their parent broke down, and the perception and view of the other parent deteriorated, it was the child who suffered and transitioned to emotions of abandonment, alienation and a lack of trust, with both parent and child worse off.
There is no statistically significant difference between men and women as perpetrators and victims of parental alienation. Raising issues of gender discrimination to discredit the experience of many is not the way forward. But the effects on alienated parents, who lose the trust of their children and therefore their willingness to see them due to the actions of the other parent, are devastating.
There can be no doubt that judicial decisions in cases involving children must take account of all aspects of the family dynamic, including all types of abuse. This is crucial, as we have heard this afternoon. There is a need for qualified professionals to assist in court in assessing whether there is abuse, and if so its severity, and how it should affect child-parent residence and contact arrangements. But we also need to be mindful that children’s expressed wishes in court are not always their own. They do not always feel free to express their actual wishes, particularly when young, and they can be used as a weapon by an abusive parent.
Therefore, it is important that parental alienation is recognised in the Bill as a form of abuse, so that it can be identified and addressed.
My Lords, before I had the pleasure of meeting my noble friend Lady Meyer, I had read about the unbelievably distressing time she went through following the alienation of her children by their father. Today she has told us that story in the most moving way. I apologise for the fact that, as she is sitting behind me, she is seeing only my back rather than my front as I make this speech.
I admire my noble friend for all she has done to raise awareness of parental alienation through the setting up of her charity and getting the academic and judicial profession to realise that parental alienation needs to be recognised. Along with her, I want parental alienation recognised, but it must be tackled in law in the right way. Hasty law makes for bad law and will not elevate parental alienation to where we all want it. This important Bill must not become a Christmas tree on which we hang too much, which leads to minimising what it wants to achieve.
I cannot agree with the amendment to this Bill. Clause 1 sets out to define domestic abuse by listing different types of abusive behaviours, and not how they may be manifested. This is important, because to do this could be risky and give more weight to how a particular type of behaviour is displayed, and potentially ignore others. As many noble Lords have mentioned, the introduction of parental alienation into the Bill could have unintended consequences due to the absence of a common definition. Consequently, in a family court, cases of parental alienation could mean whatever the judge wants it to mean.
A child may form their own reasons for resisting contact, and there are cases where a parent, for no justified reason, restricts the other parent’s relationship with the child. These are two very different situations under the parental alienation label, which serves to validate the misuse of parental alienation and to obscure the tactics of perpetrators of domestic abuse.
Parental alienation needs to be looked into in its own right. This is now being done after too many years of misunderstanding, lack of clarity and muddle among the experts. My noble friend Lady Helic mentioned how the Ministry of Justice set up an expert panel and reported in June 2020. The panel made a series of recommendations, which I do not have time to go into here, to reform the child arrangement programme in family law. Leading on from this, the Government published an implementation plan for some of the recommendations. One recommendation said:
“A review of the presumption of parental involvement … is needed urgently in order to address its detrimental effects.”
In November, the Government announced an advisory group to begin this work. I welcome these initiatives and feel strongly that this is the way forward, to make sure that parental alienation gets the recognition it deserves.
I want my noble friend to get all she feels is necessary to have parental alienation recognised in law, but my fear is that adding her amendment to this Bill will have a detrimental effect on the work that is going on, and will minimise the importance of this appalling problem. We must make sure that parental alienation is put into legislation where it can be properly dealt with, and this Bill is not that legislation.
My Lords, this is such a difficult issue. This afternoon we have heard strong and cogent arguments on both sides. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for telling her heartrending story.
Parental alienation exists, if by that we mean that the parent with care seeks to alienate the child from the parent without care. One issue is that there is such a wide range of definitions, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Brinton. I saw it first-hand as an MP when I was involved with an organisation called the Association of Shared Parenting, formed by parents who were struggling to see their children after separation or divorce. It was based on the premise that most children benefit from contact with both parents, surely something with which no noble Lord in this House would disagree. The Association of Shared Parenting still exists, despite changes in family law, which I would have hoped would save it from needing to exist. Clearly, we need qualified professionals to assess what is going on. The bitterness of a break-up and the reluctance of the parent with care to continue the relationship through the child causes some parents to resist allowing contact by weaponising the child or poisoning their mind.
That is why I initially added my name to these amendments, but I have since removed it, because I do not believe that this is what we are talking about today. We are talking about cases in the criminal courts, not of divorce settlements necessarily but of domestic abuse. The problem with this amendment, which it took me some time to get my head around, is that the abused parent could actually be painted as the abuser. As Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, who has been quoted more than once already today, says:
“It puts victims of domestic abuse into the ridiculous position where, if they raise their abuse in the family courts, however well they have actually behaved, that can trigger unfounded allegations of parental alienation that could result in their children being placed with the abuser.”
“This attempt to turn the fact that the perpetrator has terrified their partner into a destructive criticism of that partner is typical coercive controlling behaviour.”
My noble friend Lady Brinton and the noble Baronesses, Lady Helic and Lady Newlove, the former Victims’ Commissioner, are absolutely right. With sympathy to all parents suffering the anguish of break-up, the interests of the child must be paramount. I do not envy the task of the family courts in resolving these cases. We must rely on properly trained experts to decide. On balance, I believe that allowing Amendments 2 and 4 would do more harm than good to victims and dilute the definition of domestic abuse in this Bill.
My Lords, this is a solid piece of legislation and I hope that the process on which we are embarking will make it better. I remind the Committee that I sit as a family magistrate in London, so I regularly deal with all types of family-related cases, including parental alienation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, gave a heartfelt speech; I found it very moving. She has clearly endured the most difficult of circumstances. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, gave closely, carefully and well-argued support of the amendments to which she put her name.
In family courts, as everyone has acknowledged, you quite often hear allegations of parental alienation, and a normal scenario is different from what we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer. A more normal scenario is that the parents are separated, the father has not seen the children for a while—too long—and he makes a private law application to see his children. The mother says there has been domestic abuse—or there have been allegations of domestic abuse—and the father makes a counter allegation, almost as a defence, saying that the mother is alienating the children against the father. That scenario is quite common. It is for the courts to try and sort it out, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, got it right when she said that both domestic abuse and parental alienation allegations can be either true or false. It is the job of the court process to sort that out.
I want to add two other observations. First, it is the duty of the court to get the best result for the child; we are not there to get a fair result for the parents. The question that we often ask ourselves is: “How do we get the voice of the child into the court?” One usual way of doing that is through Cafcass; there is an interview with a very experienced Cafcass officer who gives their view about what would be best for the child, and that view can be examined in the court. The way that Cafcass looks at these issues will be examined later in other amendments.
There is another way of doing it, which happens very rarely. I have not done it myself, but I have done it in public law cases, and that is where the child tells the court what they want. In the scenario where I was involved, a child was going to be taken into care by social services, and I have to say, it was extremely moving. The children whom I have done this for were well aware of the realities of the situation, and they were very aware that they were saying different things to the court—to me as the magistrate—than they had been saying to their parents. My experience is that children understand these situations; they can be toxic and extremely difficult, but nobody should underestimate children’s ability to understand the difficulty of their family situation.
I do not come down for or against these amendments, as such. It is a difficult situation. Other noble Lords made the point that there are many ways that parents can undermine and be unpleasant to each other that are not to the benefit of the children. One noble Baroness referred to the Bill as a potential Christmas tree of abusive relationships, and this does not help, because there are many varieties that one sees in court. Nevertheless, the central point I make to the Committee is that it is the court’s role to come up with the best solution for the child, not what is fair for the parents.
My Lords, first, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Meyer, who is right to highlight the protection of children. I acknowledge, empathise and sympathise with her terrible experience of parental abduction, which, as she said, led to her being alienated from her children for years. We know that domestic abuse has devastating consequences, not only for adult victims but for their children, which is why the Bill rightly recognises children as victims in their own right. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, pointed out, this is very much part of the court proceeding, as has also just been articulately outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. Some of the protections that have been outlined in the Bill, such as preventing cross-examination in courts, mitigate this in some ways.
I also agree with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in questioning the judicial training that must support the outcome of such proceedings, whatever it is. We know that child arrangement cases involving domestic abuse or allegations of abuse often include allegations of alienating behaviours, where one parent seeks to undermine or frustrate the other parent’s relationship with their children, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, also outlined. These actions, as my noble friend highlights in her amendment, are often referred to as “parental alienation”.
My noble friend Lady Helic, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, pointed out how the term has so often been used to sidetrack from the issue of domestic abuse. She pointed out that the pro-contact culture of the courts quite often leads to the wrong decisions being made.
To answer my noble friend Lord Polak, there is no widely accepted definition, nor a commonly held framework, for parental alienation. Instead, views are wide-ranging: some focus on the parent’s behaviour, some focus on the child’s behaviour and others focus on the impact or outcome of the behaviour. For these and other reasons, I refer instead to “alienating behaviours”. That phrase is used in the guidance, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Bennett, point out. The guidance will be subject to consultation after Royal Assent. The beauty of the House of Lords is of course its scrutiny of Bills. To that end, we very much welcome views on how to deal with this issue.
Alienating behaviours can include a range of attitudes and actions. Some are subtle, such as drip-feeding negative views, while others are more obvious, such as deliberately flouting child arrangement orders. I am clear that these behaviours are wrong and problematic, but they are not limited to cases involving domestic abuse. They occur in the context of acrimonious separation and other high-conflict cases, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. I have sympathy with my noble friend’s wish to address these behaviours, but I submit that the definition in Clause 1 for the purposes of the Bill is not the right context in which to do so.
Alienating behaviours should be considered primarily in terms of the impact on the child. Most noble Lords referred to that and to the potential emotional and psychological harm to the child that can result, for example, from repeatedly hearing negative views about a parent or being prevented from spending time with a parent. From the perspective of risk of harm to the child, the relevant legal framework is provided for in Section 1 of the Children Act 1989, together with the Section 31(9) definition of harm in that Act.
I accept that alienating behaviours can, in some circumstances, be indicators or manifestations that point to a wider pattern of psychological or emotional abuse. To be absolutely clear, I do not accept that alienating behaviours should be defined as domestic abuse in their own right. However, in circumstances where such behaviours are indicative of a wider pattern of emotional or psychological abuse, we can be confident that the Clause 1 definition already applies and renders the proposed amendment unnecessary.
Our approach in Clause 1 is to define domestic abuse by reference to different types of abusive behaviours and not by reference to the form in which those behaviours may be expressed or manifested. If we were to include within the Clause 1 definition a list of possible indicators under each type of abuse, we would risk appearing to give more weight to one form of behaviour and therefore creating a hierarchy of behaviours. Should a particular indicator or manifestation of psychological or emotional abuse not be listed, it may be deemed to be less serious or, worse, not a form of abuse at all.
The arena in which we can most effectively address alienating behaviours as potential indicators of a recognised type of domestic abuse is the statutory guidance under Clause 73, which has been published in draft. I have gone through how that will be consulted on. It has been created and continues to be edited in consultation with the sector. As I said earlier, we welcome further suggestions on how the guidance can be further strengthened, including in the area of alienating behaviours. Once the Bill is enacted, the Home Secretary will formally consult the domestic abuse commissioner and other key stakeholders before the guidance is promulgated.
I note the points by my noble friends Lady Gardner of Parkes and Lady Chisholm that the unintended consequences might be to swing the pendulum of this good Bill the other way. My noble friend Lady Newlove warns of parental alienation creating a loophole in which to perpetrate abuse. I give the final word to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, who warns that, if these amendments are accepted, victims might be painted as abusers.
I hope that, in the light of this explanation and our commitment to address alienating behaviours in the statutory guidance, my noble friend Lady Meyer can withdraw her amendment.
I have received a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale.
My Lords, I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak after the Minister. I did not submit my name for the speakers’ list for this group because I could not rely on the train from Scotland getting me here on time, but I am delighted that I managed to make it in time to hear the powerful and important speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer.
When I first saw this amendment at the end of last week, unaware as I was then that it would become perhaps the most controversial and debated issue of our first day in Committee, I flinched. I understand the motivations behind it and there have been powerful speeches on both sides of the debate, but I fear that the Bill’s purpose, which we celebrated earlier this month at Second Reading—to empower victims of domestic abuse to be confident enough to deal with their circumstances, and to ensure that perpetrators are properly punished—would be undermined by the amendments. These amendments could disempower victims of domestic abuse and therefore run contrary to the rest of the Bill.
On reading the amendment on Friday morning, I immediately imagined a situation where a woman is about to flee the home, even temporarily, and the man says, “But under the Domestic Abuse Act I will pursue you for alienation.” A very high proportion of women facing that situation would stay where they were out of an additional fear, on top of all the fear they already experience. I will not tell my personal story here, but I can absolutely assure noble Lords that this happens and this would happen. We should hesitate and think very carefully about this issue in advance of accepting an amendment of this sort.
I was persuaded by the powerful cases made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Helic, but particularly by the wise words of the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, spelling out the need to take time over this issue, to consider it carefully, and to do the right thing for the victims of domestic abuse and the children who might be affected. For that reason I think the Government have the balance right by not including alienation in the Bill, but by referring to it in the draft statutory guidance. I therefore support the Minister’s submission.
I agree with the noble Lord’s very balanced view. It is absolutely right that we do not undermine what is very good legislation by acting in haste and regretting at leisure. The case study the noble Lord outlined was in the back of my mind as well.
My Lords, I have made so many notes that I do not know where to start. I thank all those who spoke very kindly, particularly those who support my amendments. Listening to the people who oppose them was really interesting. It made me realise how some people are quite misinterpreting their purpose. They are not about disarming women confronted by abusive men—quite the opposite; I am such a woman. False accusations are quite a different issue.
As I mentioned, it is for the courts to decide in their investigation or fact-finding hearings whether a situation is parental alienation, purposefully done by one parent using the child as a tool against the other. I do not know whether noble Lords can imagine how that feels. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said that she was in a situation like that, but it probably was not very much; it was probably a grandmother telling her that her mother was not very nice. However, many children are indoctrinated. Some people talk about children being in a cult, being constantly and continuously indoctrinated by being told that the other parent and the other family are bad. Those children live in fear of the disapproval of the parent who is alienating them.
The point I am trying to make is that parental alienation is about control; it is about one parent wanting to control the other. This is coercive behaviour. We might regret refusing to include parental alienation in the Bill because we would put children most at risk. My noble friend Lady Helic said that there is no data to prove parental alienation. I believe that there is, because many people are talking about it and are worried about it being used in some cases. Thousands of studies have been done, and I can gladly send them to the Minister. Noble Lords talked about Dr Gardner, who has been dead for 20 years. He was talking about parental alienation syndrome, but things have moved on since then. The fact that he came up with one idea that was then, properly, rejected does not mean that all the other research done afterwards is invalid.
I understand that some people feel very strongly that this is misused, but I go back to the point that it would be up to the courts. That is why we have courts and why, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, it is very important for more judges to understand what parental alienation is about. This is why we have Cafcass, and why this is recognised and in law in many countries. I do not know why we are having such a strong debate against it here. It fits in the Bill because it is used against one parent. Imagine being the parent against whom it is used: you are in a terrible position because your child dislikes you, he objects to seeing you and you cannot force the situation because you will upset him even more. It is a very efficient way to control one parent.
Lastly, the guidance will not help judges because it is not statutory. If parental alienation is just in the guidance it will not help to solve the issue earlier on.
I hope that the Minister and her department can talk with me about parental alienation to find another way to include it somewhere in the Bill—not in the guidance, but somewhere more prominent—and to make it clear that this is not anything to do with gender. I very much fear that this whole debate against parental alienation and a lot of stuff in the Bill are gender biased; there are male victims. I am talking here about children. I hope the Minister will accept discussing this further, so that we can find another way to include it in the Bill.
At this time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, but I look forward to coming back to it at the next stage.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 3. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
3: Clause 1, page 2, line 1, at end insert—
“(f) unreasonable prevention or threat of prevention of dissolution of a religious Jewish marriage via a religious bill of divorce (a “get”);”Member’s explanatory statement
This specifically itemises one spouse unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage with a ‘get’ as being within the scope of the Bill by bringing it under the definition of abusive behaviour.
My Lords, I shall speak also to my other amendments in this group—Amendments 5, 168, 169 and 170, which all relate to the same issue.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Palmer, who have added their names to the amendments, providing cross-party support. I also thank my noble friends the Ministers, who have been so generous with their time in meeting Peers to discuss the amendments and other issues relating to the Bill, and indeed for their passion for, and dedication to, improving the support and recognition of victims of domestic abuse.
This set of amendments is designed to address a specific type of abuse that mostly affects religious Jewish women, and I declare an interest as one. This issue has long been of concern to me and to many other religious Jews in this country and worldwide. Our aim with the amendments is to help victims who are unable to leave a failed marriage because their spouse unreasonably decides to prevent them moving on with their life in accordance with Jewish religious law.
I stress at the outset that the amendments are specifically designed to refer only to Jewish religious divorce, with no intention of impacting on procedures relevant to any other religion. Jewish law, of course, governs Judaism, and there is no intention to undermine the role of the Jewish courts. The amendments are intended to offer a means of helping those impacted by a particular type of abuse that can arise in some cases in this country under Jewish laws of divorce.
I also stress that the majority of Jewish divorces proceed smoothly and British Jewish wives can move on with their lives once their civil divorce is finalised. However, sadly, there are some instances where a husband, sometimes demanding money to improve a divorce settlement agreed in the civil courts, sometimes driven by a desire to punish or control their ex-wife and sometimes to continue emotional abuse that existed in the marriage, unreasonably refuses to grant the get—the Jewish bill of divorce—leaving the wife married to him in the eyes of Jewish law, even if she wishes to be free.
The amendments seek to protect and support Jewish women—it is, I am afraid, usually women—whose husbands do not willingly sign the Jewish divorce document, the get. A get can be secured only if a man initiates it and the woman agrees—it cannot be initiated by the woman—so it is intrinsically biased in favour of the husband and is, sadly, open to abuse. This is a Jewish legal document that must be approved by the rabbinical court, known as the beth din, which literally means “House of Judgment”, and it allows a couple to divorce by mutual consent. However, a get is legally valid in Jewish religious law only if approved by the beth din, and this normally requires the rabbinical judges to be satisfied that it has been agreed voluntarily.
Those worst affected by an unreasonable refusal to grant a Jewish religious divorce can effectively be kept chained in the marriage for decades as their husbands prevent them being able to marry anyone else or have children accepted under Jewish religious law. As noble Lords can imagine, this situation causes immense distress to the women, who are known as agunot, which can be translated as “chained wives”.
Of course, ultimately, it is up to the religious authorities to make decisions about religious Jewish divorce, and there is an entire legal framework governing all aspects of Jewish life which dates back to biblical law. These amendments cannot interfere with the rulings of the religious courts. Nevertheless, with this Bill being such a huge advance for our country and offering our citizens better protection and support against abuse, I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will agree that these victims should also be entitled to the protection that will be available. The amendments specifically aim to address the plight of the abuse victims in such circumstances so that these citizens, who are subjected to such unreasonable, coercive and controlling behaviour, can access practical and emotional support, as provided under the Bill.
Amendment 3 would add the unreasonable refusal to grant a get as a recognised form of domestic abuse in British law. It would specifically enshrine in this legislation that a spouse unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage with a get was brought within the scope of the Bill as committing a defined form of abusive behaviour.
Amendment 5 stipulates that a spouse impeding the dissolution of a religious Jewish marriage can be considered to be acting in a controlling, coercive, threatening or abusive manner to their partner for the purposes of the Bill.
I stress that the amendments are not designed in any way to reduce the ability of the Jewish religious court to apply Jewish law and, in particular, the provisions of the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002, which was a welcome step forward in helping those chained women and had the support of the much-missed Lord Sacks and the London Beth Din. The 2002 Act means that a judge can refuse to grant a decree absolute to a Jewish wife whose husband has not agreed to provide a get, but that has not stopped the problem of chained wives.
A civil divorce will not substitute for a get, no matter how long the wife and husband are separated. If their relationship was abusive to begin with, this is a way in which the man can continue that abuse and continue to exert control over his wife with impunity. In Jewish law, any relationship with another man would be considered adultery and any children that this woman had would be considered illegitimate, damaging their lives as religious Jews.
Jewish religious women in this position cannot move on with their lives, being forced by their husbands into a situation of limbo and powerlessness for years or decades, even missing out on their child-bearing years. Of course, I hugely regret that this remains an issue which the rabbinical authorities have not been able fully to overcome on behalf of religious Jewish women, but I understand and fully respect that these are difficult points of Torah, Talmudic and Mishnaic law, and would not presume to have the legal knowledge to address the situation.
I am also aware that there is huge sympathy among the Jewish rabbinate for those affected. However, I hope that the Bill and our suggested amendments can help to provide support and possibly further encouragement or assistance for Jewish religious women in that position.
I shall briefly address the other amendments in this group. Amendment 168 seeks to amend Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. This Act’s introduction of the new criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate family relationships was a very positive step in recognising and responding to this form of abuse, which has a devastating impact on victims’ lives. The amendment would specifically ensure that unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage is included in the definition of that offence. It would add after subsection (5):
“For the purposes of subsection (2)(a),”
that if parties remain married under Jewish religious law, even if civilly divorced, they should be
“regarded as being connected in an intimate personal relationship.”
This would apply because they remain legally married under Jewish law and he still holds sway over her, whether or not they live together.
Amendment 169 says that the Secretary of State’s guidance relating to Clause 1 of this Domestic Abuse Bill or Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 must recognise
“unreasonably preventing dissolution of a religious Jewish marriage”
against the wishes of the other partner as “controlling or coercive” behaviour. In these sad cases, coercive control commonly continues post-separation; we wish to ensure that the offence is recognised as extending, even when the couple is not living together. Economic abuse in connection with a get is also a form of coercive control that can be used post-separation, sometimes leaving victims with significant debts from trying to achieve their get, but we believe it should be included as an offence. It is not covered under the other offences such as stalking or harassment.
Amendment 170 stipulates that a court must take into account unreasonably impeding religious Jewish marriage dissolution when considering whether this is domestic abuse, and thus whether an offence has been committed under Section 76 or 76A of the Serious Crime Act, or whether domestic abuse support should be provided under Clause 55 of this Bill.
I thank the prospective domestic abuse commissioner, whose helpful briefing for Peers ahead of Committee welcomed these proposed amendments, stating the desire to ensure that the rights of Jewish women to end their religious marriage are included as part of the statutory definition on the grounds of domestic abuse by way of controlling and coercive behaviour, psychological abuse and economic abuse, where it is also a factor, as specified in these amendments.
I hope that the Government will engage further with us on these amendments to ensure, either by way of the amendments themselves or perhaps by secondary legislation or statutory guidance, that these victims can be included when considering domestic abuse in this country. They are not intended to set any precedent for any other religion’s marriage or divorce procedures; I hope that they will add further encouragement for recalcitrant religious Jewish husbands to free their former wives to continue their lives, and provide recognition of these women’s victimhood as well as support.
As legislators, we have a duty to do our utmost to protect those trapped in this way. As well as providing support to the victims, characterising the situation in British law as domestic abuse or criminal behaviour may be of assistance to the rabbinic courts. We hope that they will work with us to find a better resolution to this terrible agunah problem. I beg to move.
My Lords, like the other stories lying behind the need for this Bill, this set of amendments reveals a shameful story. I am pleased to support this group of amendments and to support the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. There could be as many as 100 women at a time caught in this situation who are known to the religious courts. It is not uncommon for women to secure their release by paying sums extorted from them by acts comparable to blackmail. The grant of the get can be used by the husband as leverage. A recent case involved a woman paying her ex-husband £50,000 for her freedom after 15 years of being chained; others have cost similar five-figure sums. It is reported that more abuse occurs nowadays than previously, perhaps connected to higher divorce rates and higher financial obligations imposed by secular courts. It is true that a religious divorce needs the woman’s agreement as well, but her refusal can be overridden by a religious court whereas a man’s cannot. Noble Lords can imagine what we women think of this and the lack of respect we have for the rabbinic authorities who manage to find all sorts of loopholes in religious law but not in this one.
It is embarrassing to have to turn to secular law for relief. The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 allows parties to ask a judge to delay a decree absolute until a religious divorce is finalised, but this law is ineffective if the husband does not care about getting a civil divorce. Then there is the Serious Crime Act 2015, Section 76, which is referred to in the amendment too. In the circumstances of a get refusal, there have been prosecutions launched against wholly unreasonable and controlling husbands under that section, which created the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Withholding the get fits well within that section. It is not, however, retrospective, and a person bringing a private prosecution has to be prepared to foot the bill for their legal costs. The section needs the proof of intent to cause fear of violence or serious distress. The cases about the get brought under this section never came to court because, once the husband had been served with the charge, he caved in. The result is that there is no precedent that this section can in fact be used where a get is withheld.
So why will the potential of Section 76 not suffice for the cruel treatment that has been described? The answer is that there would be advantages to dealing with unreasonable withholding of the get in the domestic abuse setting rather that of the Serious Crime Act. The use of a domestic abuse protection notice or order would open the door to a range of support for the victim. It also would mean that, rather than a criminal procedure, the perpetrator—usually, but not always, the husband—will be subject to a civil preventive measure, the notice, not a finding of guilt. A domestic abuse protection order can contain appropriate conditions, and must not conflict with the perpetrator’s religious beliefs. It is important that a domestic abuse order or notice be perceived as less coercive than a criminal conviction under the Serious Crime Act 2015. This is because a strict interpretation of the orthodox Jewish law requires that the husband be not directly coerced into giving the get; it has to be voluntary, as is widely understood. I am not defending this for a moment but, for those for whom the correct religious forms are important, and bearing in mind the impact on their present and future families, a domestic abuse protection notice or order would be a lifeline in secular and religious terms.
I support this set of amendments, which define the unreasonable withholding of a get as abusive behaviour; that is, when one spouse acts in a way which is controlling, coercing or threatening, or abusing the other spouse’s normal civil liberty of being able to remarry and have children in accordance with her beliefs. I hope that this House and the Government will extend a helping hand and free these unfortunate women.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 3, 5, 168, 169 and 170. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Altmann on her excellent introduction. I am delighted that my Government are putting forward this Bill and its attempt to provide as comprehensive as possible a set of arrangements relating to domestic abuse; it has my strong support. I am particularly grateful to the Ministers, my noble friends Lady Williams of Trafford and Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, for their willingness to engage.
To be clear, as my noble friend Lady Altmann said, the majority of cases of Jewish divorce are completed without too much difficulty; in the Orthodox community, they are handled by a beth din, and the judges—or dayanim—of the beth din ensure that all provisions of Jewish law are fully and appropriately adhered to. However, there are far too many cases where a man with ill intent can frustrate the process with potentially devastating ramifications for his spouse and, of course, his children. These amendments are clearly being proposed to ensure that victims of domestic abuse or coercive behaviour have full access to the provisions of the Bill. The amendments do not reduce the court’s existing ability to allow the religious courts to apply halacha—Jewish law—or, in particular, the provisions of the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002, which had the support of Lord Jakobovits, Lord Sacks and the London Beth Din.
As a practising member of the modern orthodox community, let me be absolutely clear: I am not remotely qualified to make statements on behalf of anyone, and certainly not on behalf of the beth din. However, I acknowledge that the beth din of the United Synagogue should be commended on the efforts it has made to limit the number of agunot—chained women. It has recently and rightly taken out adverts in the Jewish press that name and shame Jewish men who have refused to give a get, but sadly there is still so much more to do. However, these are overriding matters for the religious authorities and they should continue their own deliberations, although I believe that there may be scope for the Minister, my noble friend Lord Wolfson, to explore potential opportunities with the beth din going forward.
While the amendments do not create any new provisions that currently cannot be exercised through existing legislation, it can be argued that the reasons for adding these measures to the Bill are that they will make access to its provisions easier and more timely, thus potentially reducing the cost burden, while the agunah—the chained woman—can more speedily gain the ability to remarry or to lead a normal life without the stigma associated with her position. In addition, these women can access sources of support that will be made available by this important Bill.
I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister to consider supporting these amendments. They are specific, limited in scope and, as has been said, should not set precedents that relate to any other form of religious marriage or divorce in other religious traditions. I urge my noble friend the Minister to confirm that the Government are willing to engage with the proposers and supporters of these amendments to ensure that such important measures can be addressed, at the very least, in the statutory guidance.
My Lords, I shall speak in support of Amendments 3, 5, 168, 169 and 170. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for proposing these amendments and I applaud the compelling case that she made in her speech. I also thank all colleagues for their thoughtful comments and support for these measures which, as I say, I strongly support.
It is good to see the Minister in his place and ready to respond to the amendments. I am sure he is aware that it was his head of chambers, my noble friend Lord Grabiner, who introduced the Bill that became the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 with the support of the then Government. These amendments come firmly from that tradition and the approach of successive Governments to these matters. The 2002 Act has been valuable, but, alas, the position of so many women who are caught in this situation continues to be a source of great anxiety. These measures would give real benefit and relief, not only to the women who are so chained but to the men who wish to marry them and, most importantly, to the health and well-being of any children caught up in this awful situation. I would like to pay tribute to Jewish Women’s Aid, GETTout and the many legal experts and professionals who have done so much for those too many who have been caught in this awful position.
These amendments do not seek to legislate on what I consider to be essentially matters of religious doctrine and custom. They do not seek to involve the civil courts in questions of Jewish religious law. In fact, these provisions would provide greater flexibility for the courts to apply matters so as to ensure a greater appreciation of religious law and those involved in it. Her Majesty’s judges have proved to be able to deal very effectively with these issues, and I am sure that the beth din of today will be able to do so too, as indeed it has since 1866 when the then Government told the Chief Rabbinate that it no longer had the sole or main right to determine marriage or divorce in the United Kingdom.
What these measures will do, most importantly, is support the person who in adverse circumstances is the most powerless, vulnerable and likely to be experiencing coercive or abusive behaviour. There has been a tendency in this debate to raise grounds for criticising rabbis for not getting a grip on the problem, but it is important to recognise that religious law is biblical in origin and therefore seen to be immutable. Changes in practice and interpretation are very hard to achieve, most notably in the orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities, especially in the absence of any central parliament and in the context of so many different traditions. In my opinion, their position must be understood.
Under our civil law, the process of divorce is straightforward and gender neutral. Neither party can control or manipulate the process, and once the conditions for divorce are satisfied, the divorce is granted. Jewish law is different, because it is gendered and allows the man to control the proceedings. There is a degree of mutuality, but, fundamentally, the process provides for the male to be able to make the final determination and empowers the religious courts with the ability to overrule women. Central to this is the place of the man to be judged as being able to make a decision under religiously defined obligations of “free will” or “free from coercion”. It is a definition absent of responsibilities, or even adherence to common accepted principles of right or wrong.
Unfortunately, these established rules of religious law sometimes bring out the worst in people. On these occasions, the giving of the get may be used as a tactical device or a weapon of blackmail in relation to the ancillary arrangements for the children of the marriage and the financial settlement made in connection with the civil divorce. Alternatively, a refusal to deliver a get may be motivated simply by malice or spite that is in turn driven by jealousy or some other, perhaps understandable but nevertheless objectively unreasonable, purpose. We have to place the needs of the victims at the centre and, as with this important Bill, rebalance our approach to deal with the needs of the victim.
Of course, the job of the beth din is not straightforward and should be recognised as being complex, and is, I am sure, as sensitive as it is agonising. We must avoid getting involved in its processes and matters that offend religious law and focus on helping the victims. In doing this—and this is why these amendments are so important—I will illustrate the predicament of victims through three real-life examples.
The first is of a woman who had been divorced in the civil court, but is still waiting for her get after five years. On finally securing an appointment with the religious court to receive her get, it was made conditional upon her signing to agree a financial settlement of £150,000 less than that awarded by the civil court, and being forced to sign a document relinquishing any ownership of the joint properties. She was encouraged by the beth din to accept the offer as a legitimate way to secure her get, but she did not choose to do so.
Another example is of a woman who has been waiting 20 years for her get, and whose estranged husband has left the religious community, so it has no hold over him. This, and the effect of years of emotional and violent abuse during the marriage, continues to blight her life.
A third woman’s husband was being prosecuted for the sexual abuse of children. In trying to secure her get, she was asked, including by presiding members of the religious court, to lie to the police and tell them that the accusations had been fabricated, so that she could be given her religious divorce. Additional financial sums were requested. The husband made further demands that were impossible for the wife to fulfil, such as clearing his name of all convictions and expunging references on the internet. The woman had non-molestation and restraining orders against her husband, but, nevertheless, she was subjected to a campaign of harassment at home, in the street and through the posting of offensive and abusive messages on social media. The perpetrators have not been easy to identify, nor has there been any co-operation in the investigations. While the beth din expressed sympathy with her plight, there was no movement on the securing of the get.
Not every matter can be resolved easily and not every situation will fall into neat boxes with regard to the roles that either the religious or civil courts can play. It is therefore essential that we take this opportunity to level the playing field and make sure that we give the support to victims that these amendments would provide. Their objective is to enshrine the right of Jewish women to secure their get where it is being withheld by a recalcitrant ex-husband in order to exert control over the woman. Having a specific inclusion for victims of this kind of coercive behaviour, psychological abuse and often economic extortion would be valuable to those women who may have secured a civil divorce but are not considered to be divorced within the Jewish religion. It is in line with the key objective of the Bill, which is to raise awareness and understanding of domestic abuse and its impact on victims. The provisions categorise domestic abuse as conduct whereby one party seeks to compel the other to remain in a marriage against their will and uses an existing religious structure to perpetuate abuse and exert control.
There is a provision in law for the withholding of a civil divorce if a husband does not give a get, but in abusive cases, husbands are often in no rush to obtain a civil divorce, and with the bulk of the matrimonial assets and resources often being in their sole name, they are content to remain married without the final separation under way in the civil court.
While the Jewish religious courts have introduced communal and social sanctions with some degree of effectiveness, they are severely limited by having weak enforcement capabilities. This is why the law needs to go further to protect victims of this kind of coercive control and mental cruelty.
Women in this position must be entitled to the support afforded to other victims of domestic abuse under the Bill, whereby unreasonably refusing to grant a religious divorce means an act or pattern of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape, and regulating their everyday behaviour. That is the absolute definition of coercive control.
It is important to bear in mind that for women who experience get refusal, it is highly likely that that is just one of many abusive behaviours perpetrated against them, often escalating over the course of several years. Sustained domestic abuse serves to humiliate, degrade and slowly remove a woman’s sense of self, severely limiting her wherewithal to advocate for herself. Many women in this position have explained the trauma and absolute desperation it creates, and the fact that they have no way of legitimising their concerns. In some cases a man uses the imbalance of power in his favour simply out of spite—perhaps out of dissatisfaction with the way the civil marriage ended, or with the financial settlement afforded him by the courts.
In other cases, a man may have mental health issues—commonly a personality disorder. In one example, a young woman, A, converted to Judaism and at 19 married a man, B, who quickly became physically and sexually abusive, as he suffered from bipolar disorder, of which she had been unaware during their short courtship. She left him after less than a year, but six years later remained in limbo, unable to marry within the religion she had chosen.
These amendments would provide the opportunity to ensure that the provisions and protections were available to all, and specifically to recognise the plight of these women, removing the shadow of abuse and control. The law cannot restore their right to exercise their faith through their ability to remarry and have children within their faith, but these measures, in this Bill, can provide women with protection through the courts, and give them access to a domestic abuse protection order on the grounds of get prevention.
As noble friends have said, beth din-approved gets have been achieved by using the law, and these particular measures, more creatively and assertively, and in tandem with other steps. Nothing in the amendments makes a case for using them in the first instance, or even making them a normal feature of proceedings in Jewish law governing divorces, the overwhelming majority of which, as colleagues have said, pass easily. I am sure that such a prospect, of being urged to be in compliance, would be unnecessary and would raise deep concerns. But these measures need to be more readily available to support victims, so I hope that the Government are willing to support the amendments, as they are in the tradition of their own approach and of the important progress that the Bill offers.
My Lords, I first declare my interests as noted on the register; I think the relevant ones would be as a vice-president of the Jewish Leadership Council and as a long-standing member of the United Synagogue. I have signed all the amendments in this group, and I shall not refer to them individually. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for leading on them. She said that she was speaking as a religious Jewish woman, so I thought it might be appropriate for me to speak as a religious Jewish man. These problems, which mainly affect women, are well known in the Jewish community.
Noble Lords will notice that the amendments in this group have been signed by Peers from the Cross Benches, the Conservative and Labour Benches, and by myself on the Liberal Democrat Benches. When I speak in debates, it is not often that I agree with all four of the speakers immediately before me—maybe this is due to my bad nature—but tonight I do, and I pay tribute to the details that they have added to the debate.
The questions we are asking are: what is abusive behaviour, and what is coercive behaviour? We are saying that spouses should not unreasonably prevent the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage. Other noble Lords have mentioned the effects on the children of such marriages, and I shall expand a little on that. Previous amendments have said a lot about parental problems and responsibilities, but if no religious divorce—no get—is given, the children of that marriage cannot live separately with the divorced parent. Worse than that, the children of a marriage that is recognised in the civil courts but not in the Jewish religious courts are treated as illegitimate in the Jewish religion. What we need to do, if we can, is to use UK legislation to help those chained women.
Previous speakers have commented on recalcitrant husbands who demand to be paid off in order to give a get. We should do everything we can in UK legislation to give power to the women who have such problems. I would have given some examples, but the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, has already given some graphic ones, which I am sure will be well known to the Minister.
The five amendments in the group all cover the same issue: gittin—the plural of get—for Jewish women. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will say that there is hope that we will make progress on the amendments by Report. They are worthy amendments, and I trust that the Government will help the Jewish women who are, in the main, affected by these restrictions.
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation—and, I hope, an appropriate degree of sensitivity—to make some brief comments on a subject on which I have no great expertise. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, the Minister, for the time he gave me to discuss this topic last week.
The stories recounted by noble Lords can inspire only sympathy for the women caught in this terrible trap; that is completely understandable. However, I have a concern and a question. Although it has been stated several times that the amendments relate only to Jewish marriage and can have no consequences for other belief systems I am concerned that, without some additional wording, the general principle underlying them—that one has an obligation to collaborate in a divorce—might leak out into other systems. such as those in which one spouse may have a conscientious objection to the principle of divorce. I am thinking principally of Roman Catholics, but also of other denominations. If it were to be taken, either by analogy or by legal persuasion, that that principle made it a criminal offence not to collaborate in or expedite a divorce to which one party had a conscientious objection, that would be a matter that needed careful consideration.
Although I have every sympathy with the amendments, I believe that they need additional wording and protection, at the very minimum, to ensure that the consequences I have hinted at are not brought about in legal reality. I very much wish to hear what my noble friend the Minister and my noble friend Lady Altmann, who moved the amendment, have to say about that, so that we can be confident that the measures are as precisely focused as she intends.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as noted in the register. We very much want the Bill to recognise the realities of abuse that different communities face, and to make sure that it will work in practice for victims of all backgrounds, religions, disabilities and so forth. We hope that the Minister will work with the Peers raising issues and look into their concerns.
I pay tribute to the noble Lords who tabled the amendments for the very experienced and knowledgeable way in which they have highlighted this matter, to ensure that the rights of Jewish women to end their religious marriages and secure a get are included as part of the statutory definition of domestic abuse. This would be on the grounds of domestic abuse by way of controlling and coercive behaviour and psychological abuse, and of economic abuse where that is a factor.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said in her detailed opening speech, the amendment is intended to help women who are unable to leave a failed marriage, and is specific only to Jewish religious laws; there is no intention to undermine the Jewish courts. Including it in the Bill would provide the opportunity to ensure that its provisions and protections were applicable to all, and that it specifically recognised the plight of those women, removing the shadow of abuse and control, and restoring their right to exercise their faith through their ability to remarry and have children within their faith. That recognition would also offer them other protections under the Act, once the Bill is passed, if they were specifically included.
It is in line with a key objective of the Bill to raise awareness and understanding of domestic abuse and its impact on victims. Key is the ability of women to bring a case where they can retain control of the process as the victims, rather than as a witness in a prosecution having criminal sanctions as a civil party. Through tabling such an amendment, the issue can be usefully raised, and seeking legislative change could be ground-breaking for chained women.
This group highlights what so many noble Lords have been saying. The Bill must work for all victims, and to do this, it must grapple with the reality of how domestic abuse is experienced in all the different ways that it is by those living with it and those trying to escape it. I sincerely hope that the Minister can work with the noble Lords sponsoring this group of amendments to review this important issue and achieve a positive resolution.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to these amendments, particularly my noble friend Lady Altmann for her very good introduction. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, that it is not his noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar responding, but I know that he will be listening to every word I say and will correct me where I am wrong. I also thank him for some of the compelling stories that he outlined—some absolutely tragic cases which I know that all noble Lords will sympathise and empathise with. I thank all noble Lords who have engaged with me on this subject. It has been a real education for me, outlining the situations that some women find themselves in.
I will take these amendments one by one to address them properly. Amendments 3 and 5 would add a sixth limb to the list of behaviours in Clause 1(3) which count as abusive, namely the unreasonable refusal, or the threat thereof, to agree to the granting of a religious bill of divorce, or a get, which is necessary to dissolve a Jewish religious marriage. I am all too aware of the real hardship suffered by women refused a get by their husbands. As already outlined, such a woman is unable to remarry under the auspices of Orthodox Judaism. Furthermore, as a woman regarded in Jewish law as still being married, any children she goes on to have with another Jewish partner will themselves be severely restricted, as a matter of Jewish law, in who they are later able to marry. The term applied in Jewish law to such a woman, “agunah” or “chained”, is, as my noble friend Lady Altmann pointed out, both apt and tragic. I know that Jewish religious authorities are concerned about the problem, but they have not so far found a solution to it within Jewish religious law.
All too often this will be about the exertion of control by one spouse over the other, as noble Lords have pointed out. There could well be situations where the refusal of a get might constitute controlling or coercive behaviour, depending on the facts of an individual case, and this would sit better in the statutory guidance on domestic abuse provided for in Clause 73 than in the Bill.
The list of abusive behaviours in Clause 1(3) is deliberately drafted at a high level, to provide a clear and easily understandable summary of what constitutes domestic abuse. Including very specific circumstances in this list could lead to pressure to include other such circumstances, which would make the definition unwieldy. It could also create the impression that there is a hierarchy of abuse, which of course there is not. It is these more specific circumstances that the statutory guidance is designed to address, and I am more than happy to work with noble Lords to discuss what such content might look like.
Amendment 169 seeks to ensure that this guidance and the statutory guidance issued under Section 77 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 include in their discussion of controlling or coercive behaviour the unreasonable refusal to grant a get. We wish to avoid, as far as possible, prescribing in statute what statutory guidance must contain, which can arguably defeat the purpose of producing that guidance. My noble friend will be aware that, in response to significant concern from a large number of parties, Clause 73(3) does provide that guidance issued under the Bill must recognise
“that the majority of victims of domestic abuse… are female.”
However, including the specific issue of Jewish religious divorces similarly in the Bill would lead to pressure for a large number of other topics to be so included—as beautifully illustrated by my noble friend Lord Moylan—which could in practice end up reproducing much of the substance of the guidance in the Bill. My noble friend will have just heard my commitment to referring to this subject in the guidance.
Amendment 168 seeks to amend Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 to ensure that the person who unreasonably refuses a get, and their spouse, are regarded as being in an intimate personal relationship with each other, and therefore count as personally connected, which is a prerequisite for the application of the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour, as noble Lords have pointed out. I understand the intention behind this amendment. My noble friend may be aware that in our White Paper on domestic abuse, published in January 2019, the Government committed to undertake a review into the controlling or coercive behaviour offence. That review, which has considered evidence surrounding the effectiveness of that offence, will be published before Report, and the Government will consider their position in relation to that offence after its publication, in the light of the content of the review and any other information brought to our attention. Therefore, my noble friend’s amendment may be slightly premature.
Amendment 170 seeks to ensure that the unreasonable refusal to consent to a get be regarded as a significant factor in the consideration of whether a person has suffered domestic abuse, particularly whether the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour has been committed; whether a domestic abuse protection order should be issued; and the production by relevant local authorities of strategies for the provision of domestic abuse support, as required by Clause 55. On the first limb of that, the determination of domestic abuse, my remarks about what it is appropriate to include in the Bill and what to include in guidance apply equally.
On the two limbs which refer to court proceedings, it would not be appropriate for the Government to direct the judiciary in this way as to what it might or must consider, and nor is it necessary. The conditions which must be satisfied before a court can make a domestic abuse protection order will already enable a court to make one in relation to this behaviour, if it amounts to abusive behaviour under Clause 1(3). It is therefore unnecessary to make specific provision that a court must consider this sort of behaviour. It would also be the first provision of its type in the Bill, and lead to pressure for other considerations to be included in the Bill as factors courts must consider.
On the final limb, relating to local authorities, we are not otherwise specifying what local authorities must consider when drawing up their strategies. Strategies will relate to general provision in the local authority area, and it would be very odd for the only such provision to refer to a situation which relates to a very small number of people at most. However, again, I reassure my noble friend that this issue will be considered in the statutory guidance, to which local authorities will refer. I hope that in the light of this explanation, my noble friend is happy to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this brief debate, and I appreciate the excellent contributions from across the House and the very thoughtful way in which this issue is being dealt with. I also thank my noble friend the Minister for her excellent response and my noble friend who is not responding for what appears to be an excellent briefing provided to my noble friend on the Front Bench.
I respect the Minister’s concerns about the inclusion of these provisions, and I thank her for her offer to continue discussion and consideration of how this important issue could be included in the statutory guidance at the very least. I take the point that it concerns a small number of people, but it has a dreadful effect on them. I also welcome her confirmation that the review of coercive and controlling behaviour, associated with the Serious Crime Act 2015, will be published before Report. Obviously, I will study that when it is released, and perhaps we can build on it in some way going forward.
Of course, I have sympathy with, and am sensitive to, my noble friend Lord Moylan rightly pointing out the potential dangers of reading across from these amendments to other religious reasons for objecting to a divorce. That is why the amendments consistently specify “religious Jewish” divorce and “unreasonable” refusal to agree to the dissolution of a Jewish marriage.
Most of the most difficult cases are instances of an individual wilfully refusing, or threatening to refuse, a get on the grounds of seeking to abuse their wife by continuing to control her life—or even to coerce her to fulfil unreasonable or extortionate demands, as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn. Jewish law specifically facilitates divorce, but it puts the power in husbands’ hands. However, if objections are reasonable, rather than abusive, they would not be covered by these amendments, which were specifically designed for the problem of women in this country not being able to move on with their life due to religious Jewish hold-ups.
I thank everyone—all colleagues across the House, my noble friends and the department—who has respectfully and carefully considered these amendments. I hope that we may continue the discussion because it is such an important issue to many noble Lords, it seems. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 3.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Amendments 4 and 5 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 6. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate, and anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
Clause 2: Definition of "personally connected"
6: Clause 2, page 2, line 27, at end insert “or if one is the guardian of the other.”
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 6, 8, 9 and 14, in my name, and support Amendment 10, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. Having listened with great interest to what the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and others said in the previous group of amendments, I make the point that what I will talk about affects a lot of people from a considerable number of communities.
Amendment 6 is quite short. It deals with the possibility of not being related but being a guardian. It refers to teenage marriages in a forced marriage situation, since some young people may be abused by their guardian rather than someone to whom they are related.
However, Amendment 8 is more important, and it has two parts. First, it concerns those “in a forced marriage”. I put that in despite the fact that there is legislation on forced marriages and, if there is domestic abuse, the question of whether the person being abused is in a forced marriage may not make a great deal of difference. It is really a question of awareness. Secondly, and more importantly, it addresses situations where
“one person is forcing the other into a forced marriage with another person.”
This happens to young women and men, both under and over the age of 18, across a considerable number of communities: ultra-Orthodox Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Travellers, Hindus and others. The abuse is generally coercive: the abuser says to the young person, “You are to marry the person we have chosen”. Gay men are particularly at risk because, if it is known that a young man is gay, the family is particularly anxious that he should marry.
What is particularly worrying is that the abuse is not necessarily just coercive. It can become physical and there are instances, if the girl has said that she does not want to marry the man chosen by the family, it is seen as a shame or blot upon the family, and they kill her—a case of so-called “honour abuse” or “honour violence”. I saw actual examples of such extreme cases when I was a judge, and they go on today.
This is extremely concerning because it is domestic abuse, not between spouses or partners but within the family. It is very important that forced marriage is well understood, despite the legislation, because there is no widespread recognition that forced marriage can be, and often is, a part of domestic abuse. The reference to “a forced marriage” applies not only to ultra-Orthodox Jewish families but others where the wife is unable to end the marriage. This happens in a number of communities.
Amendment 9 deals not with forced marriage but modern slavery, an issue with which I am also very much involved. Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, women who are in domestic servitude are seen as slaves, but what is happening is also domestic abuse; it may not be between those who are married, partners or related but women who come into this country, very often to work for a family, and are treated abominably. They are physically, and sometimes sexually, abused, which is domestic abuse and requires to be understood.
Amendment 10, the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, addresses those who are not related or spouses but may be living in the same household and need, none the less, to be taken into account as part of the group who are domestic abusers.
Amendment 14 deals with children and a specific, rather important, gap in Clause 3. At the moment, the Bill deals with people related to, or personally connected with, each other. What it does not deal with is the fairly frequent situation in which the mother of a child or children has a number of successive partners. Those partners may either live with her in the same household or visit regularly, but not live in the household. They can equally well, and undoubtedly do, abuse the woman to the detriment of the children. It is an extremely worrying situation. As a judge, I have heard endless cases where a woman has been abused by a man who has been visiting her every day for several hours and has taken the opportunity to treat her very badly. The children, of course, have either witnessed it or been in the next room, cowering and not knowing whether they will also be abused.
It is very important that forced marriage and modern slavery, particularly forced marriage, are recognised as coming within the definition of domestic abuse. Although the legislation is there, as I have said, it does not cover these situations. It particularly does not cover the fact that the agencies do not seem to know about it. It is for that reason that I urge that these amendments be recognised and I hope they will become part of the Bill. I beg to move Amendment 6.
My Lords, I am speaking to Amendment 7, which would ensure that a carer of a person with disabilities is included in the definition of “personally connected”, together with Amendment 12, which inserts the term “provider of care.” This means any person who provides ongoing emotional, psychological or physical support to another, with the aim of enabling that person to live independently, whether or not they are paid for this support. Clause 2 gives a definition of “personally connected”, including those who are or have been married or in an intimate relationship. On the definition of “personally connected”, the Bill should reflect the realities of all domestic abuse victims who need to be able to access services, justice and support. No victim should be left behind.
These amendments would ensure that “personally connected” also covers a person’s relationship with their carer, paid or unpaid. This is to reflect the lived experience of disabled victims of domestic abuse, where a significant personal relationship in their life is with the person who provides care. This is a Bill for all victims, and we believe that this would help ensure that disabled victims are represented in this legislation. We have heard the Government say that the abuse of disabled people by their carers is already covered by existing legislation. Indeed, Section 42 of the Care Act 2014 places such a duty on local authorities. However, this Bill is for all victims of domestic violence and it is flagship legislation. It should not be that disabled victims have to be provided for elsewhere.
The unamended clause does not recognise the lived experiences of disabled victims of domestic abuse, who are among the most vulnerable. It is abuse that often goes unnoticed. Disabled victims are more likely to experience domestic abuse for a longer period: 3.3 years on average compared with 2.3 years for non-disabled victims. The Bill should make it easier for disabled victims of domestic abuse to be recognised. Therefore, there has to be an understanding and acceptance of the reality of disabled lives. Significant relationships can be different from those of a non-disabled person with an unpaid carer.
Ruth Bashall, the chief executive of Stay Safe East said that disabled people
“have emotionally intimate relationships with the people who, in very large inverted commas, ‘care’ for us, and the experience of abuse by those people is exactly the same as domestic abuse: the coercive control, the violence, the financial abuse and so on.”
Thus, this close relationship has the ability to become a difficult relationship that is the same as family or partner violence. Trusting someone enough to let them provide personal care and support with day-to-day tasks or communication is, in itself, an emotionally intimate act. This creates a close bond but also the risk of abuse. It is not infrequent for abusers to target a disabled person, befriend them and persuade them that this is done from an altruistic motivation, while exploiting and abusing them at the same time. The victim will experience the same ambiguities about power and control versus emotional attachment as any other victim of domestic abuse.
I further note Amendment 13, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and I thank her for it. I am not entirely sure, however, that it would widen the scope of the amendment, but we would be very happy with the word change if that were the case. I look forward to hearing from the noble Baroness in the debate. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, is very similar to ours regarding carers. I am particularly looking forward to hearing her learned contribution on this issue.
At its heart, the Bill must be about providing services to people who have become victims of abuse. We know that it is mainly women who suffer from domestic abuse, be it physical violence, threatening behaviour or coercive control—indeed, torture in their home. The importance of the Bill and these measures has only grown during the coronavirus crisis, as perpetrators have exploited lockdown to intensify their control and abuse and calls to helplines have increased greatly across all four nations.
I make special mention of the many domestic abuse organisations and charities that have provided much current information regarding the amendments required to the Bill. We must clearly acknowledge the support they give daily. Our recognition must go to all victims and campaigners who have pushed through family law reform for victims of sexual and domestic violence, through their own pain, suffering and loss. I welcome the important issues raised by noble Lords in this group of amendments and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, on the way she introduced her group of amendments. I fully support Amendments 6, 8, 9, 10 and 14, relating to forced marriages and people in domestic service. Her highlighting of the gap in Clause 3 relating to people who are personally connected in this way is a really important contribution to this debate and, potentially, to the Bill.
I have added my name to Amendments 7 and 12, so excellently explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. I would also like to support the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, in her Amendment 11. Each of these amendments relates to including the providers of care in the Bill, be it for disabled people or for elderly people who need care.
The definition of domestic abuse could be widened to consider abuse perpetrated by those who are in trusted positions providing either paid or unpaid care. We have heard terrible examples of people being abused by those in positions of trust, whether friends or neighbours, though it can also be family members, and it can also relate to financial abuse. I ask the Minister to ensure that the particular position of disabled people and the elderly who rely on carers is fully taken into account in the Bill.
I wonder whether independent domestic violence advocates might be funded to reach out to more patients in hospitals or in other settings who are over a certain age or disabled in some way. I also wonder whether there could be better training for healthcare practitioners to be able to identify domestic abuse when they are involved with, assessing or looking after older or disabled people in hospital or other settings who might be suffering silently from various forms of abuse.
I welcome the expansion of the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill and the specific inclusion of statutory inquiries into suspected financial abuse, as set out in the Care Act 2014. I hope that my noble friend will be able to reassure us about the intention to include these groups and I look forward to her reply. Once again, I congratulate those who have laid these amendments, which are important for us to discuss in Committee.
My Lords, Amendment 13, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Paddick, does not seek to broaden or narrow the amendment to which the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, has spoken, but rather to understand what is meant by “live independently” in the context of carers. The term “independent living” is a familiar one, but I do not know whether that is quite what is intended here. Needing support to live in one’s home, which I regard as hugely important, does not to me feel like independence. The relationship is very much about dependence, or trust, which was the term used by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. That is the extent of the reason for Amendment 13, but I am glad to be able to comment on some of the other amendments in this group.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall, have identified a number of significant situations. The noble and learned Baroness described situations, in the plural, as she carefully explained, relating to forced marriage, which came over vividly. She has an amendment about guardians, a term that has expanded beyond its original technical meaning. She and I have often been involved in discussions about the needs of children who have been trafficked where guardianship has featured. I would never challenge the noble and learned Baroness and I have not done my homework, so I hope that she will forgive me, but I wonder whether a guardian has parental responsibility and, if so, whether that would cover the situation.
The noble and learned Baroness and I have also been involved in many debates about domestic servitude and I would be interested to know what is sought to be achieved by, and the consequences of, Amendment 9 beyond identifying behaviour already criminalised under the Modern Slavery Act. Is it something about protection or prevention?
In Amendment 14, the noble and learned Baroness points out a lifestyle that may not be covered. Its significance lies in Clause 3, which relates to children as what I wrote down as “collateral damage”, a term that I am slightly embarrassed to use, but noble Lords will understand what I mean. I had at one point wondered about lodgers who are in the same household, but I decided not to pursue that. I was going to ask the noble and learned Baroness what she envisaged as a consequence of that amendment, but I think that she has explained it. It is certainly partly the need for greater awareness on the part of the authorities to the situation of those in domestic servitude to whom she has referred.
My Lords, Amendment 10 is in my name and is supported by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I support the amendments in her name—Amendments 8, 9 and 14. We should explore the definition of “personally connected”. I am not sure that the Bill as we see it includes all those people who could be included as personally connected.
Amendment 9 is about domestic servitude and I should declare my interest as a deputy chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation, along with the noble and learned Baroness—domestic servitude has been a long-standing issue for us. I recognise that there are other possible categories of people who are in the same household. My understanding of the word “domestic” is that it means “in a home”, so “domestic abuse” should cover those people who are ordinarily staying in that household, which is why I have put down Amendment 10.
The Minister may well say that some of these instances are already covered by other Acts and I would not think that that was not necessarily the case, particularly in connection with the other amendments dealing with disabled people and carers. However, I remind my noble friend that, when we were working on the early stages of Modern Slavery Bill, one of the reasons for the Bill was to put all the legislation together so that it was less confusing not only for the courts but for the police and other authorities. I ask that we have a serious look, before Report, at how “personally connected” could be better defined.
I would also like to speak to Amendment 8 on forced marriage, which is again in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and which she explained admirably, as always. I watched a compelling drama on television a few months ago, which was based on fact, about honour killing. Watching that shocked me, and we have to take every opportunity to try and address something like that—though that ultimately ended in murder and was dealt with by the appropriate legislation—which in many ways starts with abuse.
In general, I support all of these amendments. We need to look at “personally connected” in Clause 2. The final amendments relate to Clause 3, and with Amendment 14, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has hit on something very important. We have to recognise that there are domestic situations which do not necessarily reflect our own experiences, and those are exactly the sort of cases where serious and unpleasant domestic abuse happens, and we should be ready to make sure that the law covers all of those instances. I look forward to hearing what the Minister says, and perhaps at Report, we can have something in front of us which clarifies some of these points.
My Lords, I support Amendments 7, 12 and 13 in this group, but today I am speaking to moving Amendment 11 as my noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson is, unfortunately, not able to be in her place.
As someone who is supported by personal care assistants 24/7, I have a deep understanding of this territory, and I was sorry not to have been able to participate at Second Reading. Amendment 11 is a probing amendment, and it raises challenging issues which need tackling. The amendment is similar to Amendment 12 proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport. It has been tabled in response to disabled peoples’ express plea that the Bill should address the covert abuse that some individuals experience from a carer, whether paid or unpaid. Carers often have a close connection to the person they are supporting, through their personal care or day-to-day activities.
While most who care for disabled people do so with great kindness, respect and the best intentions, there are a significant number who do not, and who go on to abuse those who rely on them. Society finds it hard to believe that somebody would abuse a disabled person who cannot fight back—somebody like me. However, the 2018-19 Crime Survey for England and Wales found that people with long-term illnesses or disability were more likely to experience domestic abuse than those without. The abuse that they experience is often directly linked to their impairments and is perpetrated by the individuals that they are most dependent on for care.
In the absence of any close family or friends, carers are considered as welcome substitutes by some disabled people who are isolated and feel lonely and anxious. In the main, this is a mutually kind and equitable relationship. However, evidence shows that, on occasions, the situation is sometimes exploited by the carer, leading to an abuse of power and pervasive means of coercive control. As stated by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, examples of stealing, physical harm and bullying are more common than anyone would care to acknowledge.
Such victims need to be able to confidentially access justice and independent support services, when faced with a carer abuser. This is very challenging when the disabled person requires help to carry out the simplest of tasks and has no one to ask to help them to contact these people. This amendment could ensure that disabled people who require paid or unpaid people to support their day-to-day existence are adequately protected from domestic abuse. Currently, there is no clear route which carries out this function adequately.
The Government are not yet convinced of the necessity to include disabled people. They say that if the carer is a family member or a partner they will be covered by the Bill, because that is a significant personal relationship. In other cases, abuse of a disabled person by their carer is already covered by existing legislation. However, not all carers are necessarily regulated by existing legislation, yet the relationship they have with disabled people can be just as significant. Such carers often support the individual in very intimate ways. Strong, particularly close, personal attachments can occur, very similar to that to a partner or relative. It also takes place in a domestic setting.
Further, the existing protection is clearly not working. If the treatment of a disabled person amounts to behaviour that is “abusive” under Clause 1(3)—if it is controlling, coercive or threatening, or it involves physical, sexual, economic or psychological abuse—it seems wholly wrong to exclude it. Of course, this will not be the first time that disabled people’s concerns have been left out of mainstream public rights. Let us not do it again here.
I appreciate that Section 42 of the Care Act 2014 places a duty on local authorities to carry out safeguarding inquiries if they suspect abuse, but there is plenty of evidence to show that they are failing to identify victims, even those at highest risk. This Bill, with this amendment, could respond to the need for added protection. Many personal assistants who are employed by disabled people—I have that ability through my own personal health budget—are not regulated. We do not come under safeguarding measures. We are alone, to manage and control our PAs ourselves; it is something that we choose to do. I would want to know that this legislation covered me if I ever found myself in a situation where my PA was abusing me.
I will give just one harrowing example of why the relationship of carers and disabled people needs to be covered by this Bill:
“A neighbour befriended a woman with learning disabilities, became her carer and provided her with support. He then demanded sex and verbally abused her because she would not have sex with him.”
This woman experienced abuse by a neighbour whom she trusted, who had, in effect, become a close family friend and carer; someone with whom she felt a personal connection; somebody who had access to her house at any time of the day.
Disabled people face huge barriers in getting support from the services that are available today. We are all acutely aware of the crisis that exists within social care and the inadequate capacity to respond to such cases. In addition, it is extremely difficult to access domestic abuse services if you are a disabled person. We have to find a way to ensure that, if a disabled person experiences abuse by a carer, they have the same rights as any other victims who fall within Clause 2(1). This amendment will make the Bill as inclusive as possible, to protect all those who are abused in a domestic setting and afford them the same access to justice.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, and her powerfully argued and richly detailed speech. I plan to be brief, as the case for these amendments, which collectively address a lack of comprehensiveness in the Bill, has already been made quite clearly.
Amendment 8 in this group, in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and to which I have attached my name, addresses forced marriages and abuse within them. The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, has perhaps previewed some of the responses we might expect from the Minister in saying that many of the issues raised here are covered by other Acts. However, it is worth noting, as many noble Lords did in their first speeches, particularly on the second group, how important and ground-breaking this Bill is. It is taking us on to new ground and covering issues and areas around criminal and abusive activities that may be partially covered in other Acts, but not with the same strength and width.
I will also briefly mention Amendment 9 on domestic servitude. It made me think of a visit I made many years ago to Migrant Rights’ Network, where, sadly, I met an early victim of the hostile environment—someone clearly in need of asylum but who had been denied it and found themselves living in a household situation that they regarded as a family, domestic situation but was clearly effectively an abusive employment situation. It is really important that we make sure the Bill covers those kinds of situations, because the line between domestic and employment is not always as clear-cut as one might expect.
It is really important that this Domestic Abuse Bill is as comprehensive as possible. As written, it is very powerful; I am confident that, when it leaves your Lordships’ House, it will be even more powerful and effective. It is important that that protection is extended to as many people as possible. Structures of households are many and varied. We need to make sure they are covered as best we can.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and to contribute for the first time at this stage of proceedings. I would like to pause for a moment and congratulate the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, who introduced the Bill in its early stages in, I think, 2019. As she said at the time, this is a landmark piece of legislation, and I am delighted to see it progressing today.
The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, powerfully and effectively made the case for why carers should potentially be considered as personally connected. I lend my support to the strong terms in which she expressed that. However, I will focus my main remarks on the amendments expertly moved and spoken to by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who speaks with great authority from her years of experience at the highest level in the family courts.
I would like to put a question to my noble friend. The Explanatory Notes and the Bill itself refer to a number of other pieces of legislation that are being amended and are therefore within the remit of the Bill, which is all to the good. Could my noble friend, in summing up, say whether there is a reason why the Modern Slavery Act and other pieces of legislation, to which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, referred in speaking so eloquently to her amendments, were not included and the subject not brought within the remit of the Bill? I am thinking in particular of modern slavery.
I pay tribute to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and my noble friend Lord Randall; while the focus is on residence, their two amendments show that a frequent visitor should also be considered as falling within the requirements. At the moment, my understanding is that they would not be included because they do not physically reside in the home in which the abuse allegedly took place. In relation to Amendments 8 and 9 and the relevant legislation thereunder, it would be helpful to know why modern slavery and legislation relating to enforced marriages seem specifically excluded from the Bill. Was that intentional? Why would that be so?
Looking at Clause 3 and the Explanatory Notes, of which I am reading paragraph 86, it seems appropriate, for the purposes of Amendments 10 and 14, that the covert or overt abuse a child may witness should fall under Clause 3, as I read it.
I hope my noble friend will look favourably on these amendments. If there was some way the Government could see fit to widen the scope to encompass the caring provisions set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and others, as well as enforced marriages and the harrowing situation to which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, referred, the Bill would be much improved.
My Lords, I wish to speak in support of Amendments 10 and 14 tabled by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. It seems there is significant agreement on the need for these amendments, so I will keep my remarks relatively brief.
Amendments 10 and 14 are reasonable amendments that seek to clarify the wide variety of domestic situations in which abuse can occur. Numbers of people up and down the country are now accustomed to doing things such as renting out spare rooms and having people not related to them living in their household. Amendment 10 rightly recognises that when a perpetrator and victim live together in a domestic situation, the abuse should be considered domestic whether or not they are biologically related or in a romantic relationship.
Amendment 14 recognises that it should be considered domestic abuse when the perpetrator has regular contact with the home or lives in the home despite not having legal guardianship or a biological relationship with the child, as we have heard. Both amendments are about ensuring that the Bill is thorough in recognising what constitutes domestic abuse and in identifying the victims and perpetrators, to ensure that we can identify and intervene in the wide range of domestic abuse scenarios.
Amendment 10 relates to the legal definition of “personally connected” when assessing the relationship between a perpetrator and victim. The suggested insertion of the line,
“they are ordinarily resident in the same household”,
recognises that “personally connected” should capture those living in domestic situations who may not otherwise be in a romantic relationship or biologically related. As the definition of domestic abuse is set out in Clause 1, abusive behaviours, such as
“physical or sexual abuse … violent or threatening behaviour … controlling or coercive behaviour … economic abuse … psychological, emotional or other abuse”,
are all able to and do occur in domestic situations where the perpetrator and victim live in the same household, but are not in a romantic relationship. As such, I argue that those who live together should be considered personally connected, in the context of the Bill.
Amendment 14 relates to how we define abuse as domestic in relation to a child and recognises that children can be victims of domestic abuse where their perpetrator is not the legal parent, the guardian or biologically related. The suggested insertion of the line,
“the person lives in the same household as the child or regularly visits the household”,
broadens the scope of the different environments in which a child can be personally related to their abuser.
Children can be and are victims of domestic abuse, even where there is no legal guardianship or relation to the perpetrator, as this amendment suggests, when the perpetrator lives in the same domestic situation or is a regular visitor to the home. An obvious example, and why this amendment is necessary, is the case of a new partner to the parent or the child who regularly comes into contact with the child and may spend prolonged or regular contact in the home, or even live in the home, without legal guardianship. Abuse in this situation is self-evidently domestic, despite the abuser not having legal guardianship of the child. Child abuse is 40 times more likely when single parents find new partners. According to a study of children living in homes with unrelated adults, children are nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries, compared with children living with two biological parents.
In conclusion, both Amendments 10 and 14 are sensible and reasonable, and strengthen the Bill in its aims to promote awareness, and better protect and support victims of domestic abuse and their children. I hope that we find a way to take these amendments forward.
My Lords, I speak briefly on Amendments 6 and 7, which I support. Unfortunately, I was cut off from making further comments at Second Reading as I would have exceeded the time limit. I seek clarification on Clause 2(1), which I would have mentioned then. On the face of it, it appears to cover most, I hope all, the eventualities of which we can conceive. But I must express concern when the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss—who knows more about these matters than anyone else in your Lordships’ House—seeks to amend the Bill, and I endorse the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. They seek to add to the definition of “personally connected” in the Clause, with the words “guardian of the other” and
“lives in the same household as the child”.
An amendment that goes in the same direction adds the definition that one person is a “provider of care” for the other.
In my Second Reading speech, I would have referred to my recollection, as a very young man, a long time ago, of occasionally appearing in undefended divorce cases. To claim a divorce for your client, one had to satisfy the judge of, first, the grounds for the divorce, which did not usually take up much judicial time, and, secondly, the arrangements for the “child of the family”. That was taken seriously. The child of the family did not need a blood relationship. I found no difficulty with this extended relationship from the make-up of my own family.
Of course divorce law has changed considerably since that time, but on the face of it, if you couple the definition in Clause 2 and the words “parental responsibility”, having the same meaning as in Section 3 of the Children Act 1989, which I have reconsidered, it should be sufficiently all-embracing. Obviously the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is concerned, and the Minister should dwell deeply and give us clarification.
The mischief we are trying to cover adequately is the definition of parent and child and the words “parental responsibility”. My short point is, having regard to the amendments proposed by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is the Minister satisfied that Clause 2 is sufficiently all-embracing? I would be surprised if it is not, but I am not a family lawyer. I have been only a criminal lawyer for most of the past 40 years. I hope the Minister will give the Committee the assurances which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and all of us would like to have.
My Lords, I suspect most members of the public think of the typical case of domestic abuse as being that of an overbearing man who physically bullies his wife or partner and often the children of the household as well. This Bill enlarges that paradigm at Clause 1(3) by skilfully categorising the very different forms that abusive behaviour can take—all those forms, I suggest, being bullying behaviour. The Bill also rightly recognises that although most victims are women, a sizeable minority —about a third—are men, and the Bill is rightly gender-neutral for that reason.
However, I still believe, as I said at Second Reading, that in treating domestic abuse as limited by the definition of personal connection in Clause 2(1), the Bill has been too narrowly drawn so that it does not capture many of the relationships that give rise to abusive behaviour within a domestic context. I agree with other noble Lords who have spoken that by this narrow classification, we risk unnecessarily and unwisely excluding numbers of victims and potential victims who are no less vulnerable and no less exposed to domestic abuse than those who fall within the proposed definition. It follows that I do not accept the Government’s response in the House of Commons to an amendment on carers, when the Minister, Victoria Atkins, MP, said that the Government had,
“tried to guard against addressing all forms of exploitative behaviour in the Bill”—[Official Report, Commons, Domestic Abuse Bill Committee, 9/6/20; col. 109.]
and so dilute the understanding of domestic abuse as being focused around what she described as “a significant personal relationship”. I fully accept the sincerity of that approach, but it fails to grapple with the reality that domestic abuse happens far more widely than the paradigm cases would suggest. I therefore invite the Minister to move from that position.
With some caveats, I broadly support all the amendments in this group. I see no reason, for example, not to include in the Bill abusive behaviour by guardians towards their wards, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has argued in support of Amendment 1, or abusive behaviour by carers of persons with disabilities towards the people for whom they are supposed to be caring. I also agree that it should not matter whether the care is paid or unpaid, nor whether the carer and the victim live in the same household. I also agree that the type of care involved should be broadly defined to include emotional or psychological care as well as physical care. I also strongly support Amendment 8 dealing with forced marriages, but I wonder whether its proposers and the Government may wish to consider the amendment further, certainly to ensure that it protects anyone at risk of being forced into marriage by the potential spouse rather than by someone else, as in the amendment as presently drafted.
Amendment 9, relating to abuse by domestic employers towards those in domestic servitude, makes reference, as I read it, particularly to those held in servitude contrary to the Modern Slavery Act or Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is clearly what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, intended. However, it may be that the definition should be clarified or enlarged, so as to ensure that it includes all those who are coerced into working in their employer’s households in inhumane conditions, for vastly excessive hours and for hopelessly inadequate wages—if indeed they are paid at all. These victims have often been brought here from abroad as members of their employer’s households, and they are often frightened that, outside those households, they have no way of staying here legally and no means of support.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that where two people ordinarily live in the same household, they should be treated as personally connected whether or not they are within the categories of relationship defined in Clause 2(1). I cannot see why domestic abuse should be excluded in any context where two people are living together in the same household, and I cannot see the need for any formal requirements for the relationship to bring it within the ambit of the Bill.
So, as I say, while the Bill is admirable in offering extensive and enlightened measures to tackle domestic abuse and offer help to many of its victims, the limits placed upon its reach by the narrow definition of “personally connected” seem to me to represent a wasted opportunity to do much more for many who need and deserve its protection. While some of these amendments perhaps need finessing, I believe the Government would do well to take them further.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. I find myself in broad agreement with what he said about the need to broaden the categories of “personally connected” as set out in the Bill.
My first reaction on reading this part of the Bill was that we certainly need to be more inclusive of other relationships. My second reaction, I must admit, was that there were some relationships that should probably be excluded, as they would dilute the impact of the focus of domestic abuse legislation. For example, the relationship of landlord and tenant, without more to support a clear connection between them in a domestic setting, should not be within the scope of the Bill per se. I think that was a point was touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
Amendment 6, in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, would extend the legislation explicitly to guardians. I listened carefully to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, about the fact that this is probably, or may well be, covered by the legislation. I suspect that is true in relation to children in Clause 3, but I think it does not deal with the situation between A and B in Clause 2. I think that was the point the noble and learned Baroness was making, unless I am mistaken. Maybe I have misunderstood that; I look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister and, indeed, the noble and learned Baroness, in concluding this part of our discussion, say in that regard.
But it seems to me that guardianship certainly needs to be included quite obviously for both areas. I just wonder whether it should cover the situation where A or B has been a guardian and is no longer a guardian, because I would expect the close nexus—the close relationship—to continue.
I have much sympathy with the case put forward on Amendment 7, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox of Newport and Lady Watkins of Tavistock, and my noble friend Lady Altmann; with Amendment 11, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Grey-Thompson and Lady Finlay of Llandaff, which was so ably, emotionally and correctly supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton; and Amendment 12, in the names of my noble friend Lady Altmann and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox.
Essentially, consideration of this part of the Bill relates to what relationships the domestic abuse legislation should cover. Like the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, I think that the starting point should be: would we want to exclude anything where people are in the same household? As I said, some relationships, such as landlord and tenant, should maybe be excluded, but otherwise I see no reason to exclude anything where there is a close and trusted relationship, as there would be in the context of carers. Indeed, we really should recognise the realities of abuse today and the society in which we live, and that, in this pioneering piece of legislation, we are setting out the principles and frameworks of the law in this area for years to come. We should get it right and be bold.
I say that too in the context of Amendment 8 on forced marriages, so ably set out by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. Some of the scenarios may possibly be caught by the Bill’s provisions where a forced marriage has already taken place, but there might be problems if the marriage was null and void . Clearly, it does not cover the situation where the marriage has not yet taken place. There is a very powerful, almost unanswerable, case to extend the definition of “personally connected” to cover this situation.
The same is true of Amendment 9, on domestic servitude, tabled by the noble and learned Baroness and by my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge. No doubt there are provisions in modern slavery legislation to deal with that scenario, just as there would be provisions relating to forced marriage and so on, but there is a powerful case for extending the protection and all the measures of the domestic abuse legislation to these situations.
As I said, we need to recognise the realities of life in Britain and the country we are governing today. I will listen to my noble friend’s response with interest, but there is a clear case for extending the definition of “personally connected”, which we are debating.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. At Second Reading, I tried to set out how important it is that this legislation encapsulates, as far as we humanly can, all the possibilities that, if not included, would be felt to have let down the people we seek to help in years to come. I used the example of the first effort back in 2003, in the domestic violence and victims Act, for which I was responsible as Home Secretary, where we clearly took a step forward but a very tentative one. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for understanding and supporting what I was trying to say.
My dilemma is this. While I very clearly understand the thrust of the amendments and the critical nature of getting right the definition of “personally connected” to make the Bill work and watertight, and to enable the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary to use it as an effective tool, there are real dangers in some of the amendments—not in the essence of what is sought but in the extent to which they make it difficult to decide which Act is to be used, first by the police in filling in form 124, then by the Crown Prosecution Service, and subsequently in our adversarial court system, where a substantial case has been made and knocked down because of the detailed nature of the definitions involved.
So I have some sympathy, as I normally have, with the Minister in how to get this right. For instance, I agreed wholeheartedly with the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and with the very thoughtful and powerful presentation from the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, reflecting the desire of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, to see carers involved, and I cannot see any reason why we cannot involve them. But we then drift into the situation of a friend who regularly comes round to the house and seeks to sexually abuse someone. Surely that would fall under the Sexual Offices Act 2003, for which I was also responsible. The wider you make the definition, the more difficult it will be to get a successful prosecution if you use the wrong piece of legislation.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, knows more about this than I ever will, because, although I was responsible for trying to develop policy, she had to implement it. It seems that we should try to do what we tried to do recently in another Act: the Minister should, once again, get people to come together to look at how the very sensible amendments being moved this evening can be tightened up, so that the legislation is broad enough to encapsulate the concerns that have, quite rightly, been raised. At the same time, it should not be loose enough to allow a very clever barrister—we have a number of them in our House—to run rings round the prosecution.
Tonight has been an excellent example of how the real concerns that exist out there can be reflected, as were the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in commencing the Committee stage this afternoon, when she referred to the organisations and campaigners, all of whom are helping us to get this legislation right.
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for whom I have virtually unqualified admiration. I have seen what he has done over a long period of years and have agreed with a very great deal of it.
It is important that this landmark legislation is able to deal with abuse involving relationships between those who live in the same domestic setting or where there is a dependency within a domestic setting. That is why I give great support to the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, who spoke with great eloquence, force, lucidity and passion. What she said convinced me entirely. I hope that, when the Minister comes to reply, he will indicate a willingness to incorporate the amendment that she spoke to, or something very like it.
I want to concentrate my brief remarks mainly on Amendment 8, spoken to by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. As the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has just said, she speaks with an authority that none of us can begin to emulate or rival in any way.
It seems absolutely crucial that this landmark Bill, as I call it, covers forced marriage. I say that for one reason above all others. I have been privileged to attend a number of meetings arranged by another formidable Baroness—the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who has been conducting a campaign to underline the dangers of sharia law in the context of marriage. At those meetings, some quite exceptionally brave women—mostly very young—who have been forced into marriage, or who are threatened with being forced into marriage, have given testimony to colleagues from your Lordships’ House. What I have heard at those meetings has been not only moving but sometimes tragic, because a number of those who have given evidence to us have suffered bereavement within their family circle. I implore my noble friend to make sure that forced marriage is very much included.
It is very good to be able to give virtually unqualified support to a Bill, and I am delighted to be able to do so. However, I sincerely hope that this will be as comprehensive an Act of Parliament as possible when it comes into force, that so far as possible all domestic abuse will be included and that high on the list will be forced marriage.
My Lords, we are having some difficulty connecting to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, so the next speaker is the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate. In her opening comments the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, echoed a profound sense of solidarity and all our best wishes for this Bill going through this process. We are very honoured to take part.
I wish to put on record my thanks to the many organisations that have so diligently briefed us; I also thank the Minister. As a former domestic violence officer and child protection worker, for decades I worked practically with families of survivors. This is an incredible opportunity to place their needs and well-being at the centre of legal frameworks. Recognition of the effect on children is long overdue.
I wish to address Amendments 6 and 8, and speak also to Amendments 11 and 12. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, whom I claim to be my noble friend, argues that this legislation should encompass matters of forced marriage victims and survivors within the context of the Bill, and I very much agree with her—I support her in her cause. Although I do not claim to have the legal wisdom or expertise of my noble and learned friend, my recommendation, as the chair of the Forced Marriage Task Force, was to ensure that we embed matters of forced marriage and murder—I have distaste for the words “honour killing”; it is murder, primarily of women but of course of some men, too—in mainstream legislation.
Like other noble Lords, I would like to see the eradication of disjointedness and silos in responding to victims, as though the violence that they experience is somehow different. Similarly, on Amendment 11, I am in constant awe of my noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton, who is correct to assert that disabled persons have absolute rights to be heard within the purview of all public and mainstream rights to receive the necessary safeguards, protection and services that this legislation will afford and facilitate to all other victims and survivors of violence and abuse. This was very powerfully reinforced by my noble friend Lady Wilcox of Newport, and I am really grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for her insightful recommendations for trained advocacy. I hope that the Government will give their fullest consideration to her request.
I will make some general points in support of this group. Community-based services are a critical aspect of empowering survivors and their children. According to a survey undertaken I think by Barnardo’s, 70% of individuals experiencing violence wish to receive community-based support. Specialist services that may be needed to address their welfare may include housing support, helplines and support for children, as well as programmes for perpetrators. The statutory duty on local authorities to provide accommodation-based services must not lose sight of the equal status and weight being mandated for community-oriented services, or we may unwittingly miss or discourage many hundreds of thousands of women who could find it prohibitive to seek urgent help and flee their perpetrators.
Postcode lotteries in access to services are well established, and lack of specialist services are well acknowledged. Nicole Jacobs has said that she is mapping current services. I feel that such an exercise will miss the value of all those women-led specialist services which have been shut down over the years, particularly by local authorities which have marginalised the needs of women from diverse backgrounds. I speak with some knowledge. In my own area, two critical women-led services, the Jagonari Women’s Centre and East London Asian Family Counselling, have been shut down, meaning that all the clients that they served over 30 years have nowhere to go. Whatever the excuse or rationale of local male leaderships, the end result has surely been that many women have been further alienated from reporting abuse and seeking urgent support.
Many specialist organisations have been a lifeline for women, particularly those who lack confidence and knowledge of the system and how to report or manage available services. Therefore, this legislative framework must widen its scope to ensure wide-ranging awareness of this law, once it has been passed. Also, leadership across different institutions must explicitly mandate organisations meeting the needs of all victims and survivors who experience additional distress or fears of discrimination. Furthermore, they must be held to account at the local and national levels for the quality and consistency of services for some of the most vulnerable in our society. I am grateful that the domestic abuse commissioner will broaden her reach to communities hitherto beyond the reach of the usual suspects and approved organisations.
I am grateful to have been able to participate in this discussion today. I want to make two final comments. I listened with a great deal of respect and admiration to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, on Jewish marriages. She is right to be very specific. There are issues pertaining to other faiths, including Muslim marriages, some of which are stuck in the sharia councils—not sharia courts but councils, like the Jewish councils—
Okay. I finish by saying that I am grateful for this consideration and hope that it may be extended to others. Finally, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer. I was deeply moved by her argument and would have taken part in her discussion; I did not manage to do so as I have not been well myself in the last few days. I am very grateful for the patience of the House.
My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 11, to which I have added my name. It is in the name of my noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson and was powerfully introduced by my noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton. It seeks to extend the definition of “personally connected” to both paid and unpaid carers. This reflects the reality for many people who require care or assistance due to having a disability and may have a significant trusting relationship with people outside their family. I also support Amendments 7 and 12 in this group.
A key part of the lives of disabled people are carers who are paid, and unpaid friends, neighbours or family members who provide care or assistance. These people are in a trusted relationship, a trusted position, and have access not only to the person’s possessions and paperwork but to the person’s body. They have access to medication and equipment. Trusting someone in this way creates a close emotional attachment to the extent that, over time, the carer becomes like family. However, such a personal connection increases the risk of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse.
We know, sadly, that disabled people are much more likely to experience domestic abuse than others. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, 13.8% of disabled women experienced domestic abuse in 2018-19. This is likely to have increased during the pandemic. These statistics are likely to be an underestimate and do not usually account for abuse by carers with a personal connection. Speaking out may be particularly hard for women with learning disabilities, expressive disorders, those who speak little English, or those who may have been threatened with institutionalisation or losing their children.
Many disabled people live alone and have experienced difficult relationships with relatives. A carer may be the only significant person they are connected to, and they may feel that they have no one else to turn to if a carer becomes controlling or physically abusive. It is vital that paid carers are properly assessed for the risk of domestic abuse, and sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse must be put in. While many informal unpaid carers are often motivated by friendship, there are numerous case studies of some who have deliberately befriended a disabled person living alone to abuse them.
I have a concern about Amendment 13 as an amendment to Amendment 12, as it seems to possibly narrow protection for those who stay in supported living but whose main home is with their parents—neither home is their own, yet they may be victims. I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. I can see that there is a separate argument for strengthening the Care Act, as it currently fails disabled victims of any form of domestic abuse. However, having two distinct laws and processes for supporting different victims of the same type of abuse is discriminatory. As we will discuss when we come to best interests being used as an inappropriate defence, it risks leading to disabled victims not being protected or supported. Without a change in the definition of “personally connected”, we will fail to protect the victims of abuse by non-family carers and deny them access to the much-needed services available to other domestic abuse victims.
My Lords, given the length of the debate and the time, I have junked most of what I intended to say and will keep it really brief. I can understand that at first sight Clause 2 looks as though it covers a range of relationships, but when issues arise and the police become involved, we have to remove any loopholes the perpetrator could use. Therefore, at least some of this group of amendments should be seriously considered to be added to the Bill. The less that is in doubt, the better. I am not a lawyer, but I cannot see how guardians are covered in Clause 2, so Amendment 6 is an absolute must to be considered to be put in the Bill.
Neither Amendment 7 nor Amendment 11 appears to be covered in the way I read the clause. I appreciate that guidance will be issued and that the area of care is very varied. However, as the LGA brief makes clear, there needs to be consistent understanding across all the agencies involved. The LGA warns against a definition which might prevent someone giving care in some circumstances. For example, helping with finances can vary from very simple to incredibly complex. Can the Bill prevent domestic abuse via, for example, misuse of a lasting power of attorney? I would need to be satisfied on that.
Amendment 8 relates to forced marriage by including the parents and other family members. I can support this from direct constituency experience when I was in the other place.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who has just spoken, I do not understand Amendment 13. The note says that is intended to widen the definition in Amendment 12. It seems to me to narrow it.
Finally, I would like to hear from the Minister why Amendment 14 is already covered by Clause 2. I cannot see how it is and it appears that the circumstances, and the examples given by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, make it a crucial point to be added to the Bill in due course.
My Lords, it is never easy to make a truly original point at the end of such a full and interesting debate as the one on this group, so I will keep my remarks as brief as possible. In general, we have to be careful about diluting the definition of domestic abuse. We could be in danger of expanding it to the point where it begins to lose impact, duplicates laws already in place or worse still, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, stores up significant legal problems for the future.
However, to argue against myself briefly, there is significant merit in considering Amendments 7, 11 and 12. Some of the most shocking and disturbing evidence heard by the joint scrutiny committee was from Ruth Bashall, the CEO of Stay Safe East. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, read out a quote from her, so I will not repeat it, but it was compelling and moving evidence. As a result, after much discussion and consideration, the committee recommended that the Bill should recognise that the abuse of disabled people by their carers often mirrors that seen in other relationships covered by the Bill. We concluded that abuse by any carer towards this particularly vulnerable group should be included in the statutory definition. We also recommended that the Government review the “personally connected” clause, with the intention of amending it to include a clause that covers all disabled people and their carers, paid or unpaid, in recognition of the fact that this type of abuse occurs in a domestic situation. I stand by this recommendation.
Worldwide systematic reviews have highlighted the greater risk of violence generally for disabled people, showing that they are substantially more likely to experience threats of violence, physical abuse and sexual assault. The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, made an excellent and strong speech on this. Most people outside this House would be shocked to hear about the levels of abuse that disabled people have to put up with. SafeLives also produced a report showing that disabled people are far more likely—twice as likely, I think—than able-bodied women in particular to experience physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse.
The other point that the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, made excellently is that the route out is so much harder and less clear. Domestic abuse suffered by disabled victims often goes unreported and unnoticed, and leaves these hidden victims without the support they need. We often have a chicken-and-egg situation, because the data and research on this group are limited, making it far more difficult to justify and advocate for the commissioning of services that respond to their specific needs.
The voice of people with disabilities is not heard often enough or loudly enough. I therefore hope that the Government will give due consideration to these amendments, which could have a significant impact on their ability to escape from what can so often be a prison in their own homes.
My Lords, I think the general test for this group of amendments is whether the perpetrator of abuse has some power or hold over the victim and, through abuse, makes the victim feel unsafe in their own home. In that regard, the noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell of Surbiton and Lady Wilcox of Newport, both made the important point about the close connection there often is between a disabled person and their carers, raising similar risks to other vulnerable people in intimate relationships.
I will take these amendments in order. If the victim is 16 or over and subject to abuse by their guardian—someone who has power over them—it seems only right that guardians are included in the definition of “personally connected”, as Amendment 6 suggests.
Similarly, a carer for a disabled person—someone who, to a greater or lesser extent, the disabled person relies on—should also be included, particularly if the care is provided in the victim’s home. Amendment 7 is perhaps too wide, albeit that the intention is to provide a safeguard for disabled people, in that someone who provides care to an able-bodied person would be included in this amendment as currently drafted. The more narrowly drawn Amendment 11 appears more precise.
Amendment 12, to which we have our Amendment 13, is arguably unintentionally too narrow in applying only to cases where the care is provided to enable independent living, rather than, as our amendment suggests, where the care is provided to enable someone to live in their own home, whether independently or not. I accept what my noble friend Lady Hamwee said: this may not necessarily widen the definition but simply clarify what independent living means.
I understand that those involved in coercing someone into a forced marriage may not be parents or other family members. They may be the family of the other party to the marriage, for example, but parents and other family members involved in such practices, as indicated in the Member’s explanatory statement, are already included in the definition of “personally connected”, as they are relatives. The behaviour would also be covered by the definition of “abusive” under Clause 1(3)(c), “controlling or coercive behaviour”, although I accept what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, says: it could also be physical abuse. I wonder whether the Minister agrees.
Amendment 9 seeks to include victims of the offence under Section 1 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. I understand that such a person would also be a victim of domestic abuse, but I wonder whether they would need the protection of both this Bill and the Modern Slavery Act, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, alluded to.
Amendment 10 reinforces what I have previously said about someone who, as a result of abuse, does not feel safe in their own home. This might easily include someone who is part of the same household as the victim but not covered by any of the other definitions of “personally connected”, such as the victim’s sister’s live-in boyfriend. The sister and the boyfriend may be in an intimate relationship, but the victim is not otherwise “personally connected” to the boyfriend.
Amendment 14 concerns the separate issue of children as victims of domestic abuse who are traumatised as a result of seeing the effect on the victim and are related to the victim or the perpetrator. The example given is where a mother has several transitory relationships with men, who may live with her or visit her but are not otherwise connected with her children.
It is conceivable that such children might be traumatised by the actions of the perpetrator, rather than by experiencing the effects of abuse on the mother, making the amendment necessary. Bullying behaviour by the transitory lover could have a lasting and detrimental impact on the child, even if the mother’s reaction to it does not have any impact. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, this is the first opportunity I have had to speak on this Bill, so I hope that noble Lords will permit me to begin by agreeing with my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering and the wide range of noble Lords from all corners of your Lordships’ House who have paid tribute to my right honourable friend Theresa May for bringing forward this landmark legislation, as my noble friend called it. I mentioned in my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House more than a year ago that I hoped this Bill would see swift passage to the statute book. I hope this reassures noble Lords that I speak not just as a Government Whip but as an enthusiast for seeing this legislation on the statute book. I hope that we can conduct our scrutiny rigorously and swiftly, including of the nearly 200 amendments which have been tabled to it so far.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and others for introducing these amendments, and all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I will begin with the amendments which seek to expand the definition of “personally connected” in Clause 2 of the Bill.
Amendment 6 seeks to expand the definition to include guardians. The Government have understood this to mean legal guardians of children under the age of 18, but we believe that the existing drafting already covers guardians to the extent that it is appropriate to do so. Clause 2(1) defines the term “personally connected” for the purposes of the definition of domestic abuse in Clause 1. Among those groups of people who are taken to be personally connected are two people who each have, or have at one time had, parental responsibility in relation to the same child. Subsection (2) goes on to define a parental relationship as being one where the person “is a parent of”, or has “parental responsibility for the child”. Subsection (3) then provides that parental responsibility,
“has the same meaning as in the Children Act 1989 … section 3”,
which defines parental responsibility to include legal guardians of children. So, if the two individuals within an abusive relationship are, say, the birth mother of a child and a legal guardian or former legal guardian of the same child, then those two individuals would come within the definition of “personally connected”.
Amendment 8, in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, seeks to expand the definition of “personally connected” to include victims of forced marriage or those in a situation where one person is forcing the other into a marriage with another person. As the noble and learned Baroness said, this affects a large number of people from a wide range of parts of the community. She mentioned, for instance, gay men and women who are forced into marriage by their families and others, and that, sadly, it is often accompanied by violence or so-called honour killings. We are confident that victims of forced marriage are already captured under the existing definition of “personally connected” in Clause 2. Among other things, this provides that a personal connection exists if persons A and B are, or have been, married to each other, or if they are, or have been, in an intimate personal relationship.
We are also confident that victims who are being forced into a marriage with another person by a family member will also be captured under the existing definition at Clause 2(1)(g), which provides that a personal connection exists when person A and person B are related. Moreover, the draft statutory guidance clearly signals that forced marriage is one manifestation of domestic abuse.
That leaves one potential situation arising from Amendment 8, in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, namely where a victim is being forced into a forced marriage by somebody to whom he or she is not related. In this situation, the victim would not be considered “personally connected” to the perpetrator, and it would not be considered domestic abuse in the context of the Bill. Similarly, with reference to Amendment 9, victims of domestic servitude who are suffering abuse would not be considered victims of domestic abuse unless they were personally connected to the perpetrator as defined in Clause 2. That is because the definition of “personal connection” is key to the approach we are taking in this Bill.
The personal relationship between the perpetrator and the victim is central to the nature of domestic abuse. It is this personal relationship—be it an intimate or familial one —which makes domestic abuse a unique form of abuse. That is how domestic abuse is generally and commonly understood among the public and the various agencies, charities, and NGOs which do such important work seeking to tackle it. As such, it would not be appropriate to expand the definition of “personally connected” to include all those people who might play a role in forcing a person into a forced marriage. It is in any case a rare scenario for someone to be forced into marriage solely by people who are not their relatives. A family member would often be involved.
That is not to say that the Government do not take the issue of forced marriage extremely seriously, and I pay tribute to the noble and learned Baroness for her excellent work as head of the National Commission on Forced Marriage. As she will be fully aware from that, in 2014 the Government made forced marriage a criminal offence, in order better to protect victims and to send a clear message that it is an unacceptable practice which will not be tolerated in the United Kingdom. I am proud to say that the UK is a world leader in the fight to stamp it out, for instance with our dedicated Forced Marriage Unit leading efforts to combat it both at home and abroad.
Turning to Amendment 9, as the noble and learned Baroness will also know given her deep involvement in the passage of the Modern Slavery Act, anyone who is suspected of being a victim of domestic servitude—a form of modern slavery—can be referred into the national system of identification and support for victims, the national referral mechanism. That mechanism operates a two-stage process to determine whether someone is a victim of modern slavery, and people referred to it can receive a package of support including accommodation, financial support, healthcare, and other support dependent on their needs.
I turn now to Amendments 7, 11, 12 and 13, in the names of the noble Baronesses Lady Wilcox of Newport, Lady Grey-Thompson, and Lady Hamwee, which seek to bring to bring carers within the definition of “personally connected”. Similar considerations apply here to those I have already set out regarding the risk of diluting what we mean by domestic abuse. Extending the definition explicitly to cover carers—and I was struck by the words of the noble Baroness regarding the very large inverted commas which are needed to cover the definition of carers—would, I suggest, broaden the definition of domestic abuse unhelpfully. It would then encompass a whole range of people who are not actually personally connected in the way we mean when we speak of domestic abuse specifically. That would not help us with one of the Bill’s overarching aims, which is to raise awareness and understanding about the devastating impact of domestic abuse on victims and their families—a point made a few moments ago by my noble friend Lady Bertin. This is a Domestic Abuse Bill, not an abuse Bill, which is why we do not believe that it would be appropriate for these sorts of relationships to be included within that definition.
This is not to negate or to ignore the abuse of elderly or disabled people, or any of the other groups who have been mentioned by noble Lords this evening. A carer, by definition, should be enabling the people they care for to live their lives as independently as possible, both at home and outside it. Of course, any abuse carried out by carers should be called out and tackled and there is already legislation which does just this, as noble Lords anticipated. For example, as noted by the noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell of Surbiton and Lady Wilcox of Newport, Section 42 of the Care Act 2014 places a duty on local authorities to carry out safeguarding inquiries if they have a reason to suspect an adult in their area with care and support needs is at risk of abuse or neglect.
It has been almost six years since that Act came into force, and we have seen a steady increase in the number of concerns raised under it and the number of Section 42 inquiries conducted year on year, clearly demonstrating that this law is having an impact. The accompanying statutory guidance under the Care Act regarding the duty on local authorities has also helped to ensure that the services they commission are safe, effective and of high quality.
The Care Quality Commission is also instrumental here, playing a key role in ensuring that care providers have effective systems to help keep adults safe, ensuring that they are free from abuse and neglect. It has a duty to act promptly whenever safeguarding issues are discovered during inspections, raising them with the provider and, if necessary, referring safeguarding issues to the local authority and the police.
In addition, statutory local safeguarding adult boards provide assurance that local safeguarding arrangements and partners, including the police, local authorities and the NHS, are all acting to help and protect adults who might be at risk of abuse or neglect. Furthermore, under Section 20 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the offence of “ill-treatment or wilful neglect” was introduced specifically to help tackle the abuse of those people who are dependent on care services. As such, as my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge and others anticipated, we believe that these important issues are already covered in statute. I was struck by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who rightly identified the dilemma here of making sure that we are covering the wide panoply of human relationships, while not creating a legislative framework that makes it more difficult to bring prosecutions and tackle the abuse that we all want to tackle through this Bill.
My noble friend Lady Altmann asked about the use of independent domestic violence advocates, and, where they are provided, whether by local authorities or local health services, they will indeed provide support for all victims, including older people and people with disabilities. She also asked about training, which we will have an opportunity to discuss further when we come to Amendment 53, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top—so I hope she will forgive me if I return to that point then.
Finally, Amendments 10 and 14, in the names of my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in effect seek to expand the definition of domestic abuse so that it covers people who either live in the same household or are regular visitors to that household. Extending the definition of “personally connected” to cover those who live with, or are exposed to, perpetrators to whom they are not personally connected would, again, unhelpfully stretch the definition of domestic abuse. It would then encompass a whole range of people who live together or visit one another but who are not actually personally connected, such as landlords, tenants or friends—a point raised by my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth and others.
This is emphatically not to say that we do not recognise the impact of all abuse, regardless of whether the victim is personally connected to the perpetrator. For adults who are experiencing abuse at the hands of a person with whom they live, but to whom they are not personally connected, there are existing protections, such as the offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. In addition, a number of safeguards are in place to protect children not personally connected to their abuser: these are captured under the broad definition of “harm” in the Children Act 1989. The definition of “harm” is not limited to a child being related to the perpetrator of the victim.
On Amendment 14, I hope I can offer the noble and leaned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, some reassurance. Under Clause 3, a child is to be regarded as a victim of domestic abuse if he or she
“sees or hears, or experiences the effects”
of domestic abuse and is related either to the direct victim of the abuse or to the perpetrator. As such, in the scenario she set out at Second Reading and in Committee today, as echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, of an abusive man living in a house with his victim and her children, where that man is not the father of the children, those children would still be regarded as victims of domestic abuse under Clause 3 by virtue of their relationship with the abused mother.
I hope noble Lords will accept my point about retaining the importance of domestic abuse as a distinct form of abuse in the Bill, and will be reassured that the many and important areas that they have raised in the debate are already covered in existing statutes. I hope that the noble and learned Baroness will be willing to withdraw her amendment.
I have received one request to speak after the Minister. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
My Lords, the Minister has given quite a long reply, which will bear reading. However, it sounded somewhat circular: the various groups referred to in the amendments are not within the definition. But that, of course, is why this long list of amendments was tabled. I felt that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, really nailed my concerns. I am not speaking from the point of view of someone who feels that their concerns have not been picked up, but I was unclear whether the Minister was saying that there were adequate remedies and protections for every one of the people covered by the amendments. I certainly did not feel that the Government accepted that being in the same household is very close to a personal connection—it is, after all, a domestic situation. I wonder whether the Minister can help further.
The noble Baroness is right: it was a lengthy response, which I hope set out why the wide range of examples given by noble Lords are, we believe, already covered either in the drafting of the Bill or in existing statutes. She is also right to say that the debate will repay reading—for me, as well as for others—to make sure that we have indeed covered all the examples.
In brief, the dilemma, as encapsulated by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is to make sure that, in seeking to cover the wide variety of relationships, we are not diluting the unique character of domestic abuse. A person coming into somebody’s household as a friend or as a temporary flatmate who may be there only a short time is in a different category from some of those other examples. I am sure that we shall return to this point throughout the scrutiny of the Bill.
Finally, I call the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to respond to the debate on her amendment.
I thank everybody who has played a part in this quite long debate. I have learned a great deal from what so many people have said. Because it has taken nearly two hours, I propose—much to my regret, but perhaps to the pleasure of everyone else in the Committee—not to reply to any of the points that have been made, save two. I also thank the Minister, although I am disappointed, but not surprised, by his response to my amendments.
My first point, which was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, is that although a great many bits of the Modern Slavery Act had been in other legislation, it was thought a good idea to have an umbrella Act that would cover all those aspects. Nobody took the point that they were actually also found elsewhere. With this landmark Bill—as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has called it—I really do not see why we cannot adopt the same process as we adopted with the Modern Slavery Act.
My second and last point is about Amendment 14. I am surprised, and shocked in a way, unless my understanding and ability to interpret a clause are sadly at fault. Clause 3(3) states:
“A child is related to a person for the purposes of subsection (2) if—
(a) the person is a parent of, or has parental responsibility for, the child, or
(b) the child and the person are relatives.”
But I am talking about when men come into a household, live with the mother of the children, abuse her, and the children hear it and suffer. This is the whole purpose of this part of the Bill. That man is not related to the child; he is not a parent, and my understanding of parental responsibility—I had some part in this as President of the Family Division when it came into the Court of Appeal—is that it is carefully defined in the Children Act and does not include the casual or long-term partner who is not related and has not been granted parental responsibility. Would the Minister please go back and talk to his lawyers? I see this as one of the most important and serious aspects—where women have more than one partner and the partner is not a relative or does not have parental responsibility for the child. Please, would he look at it again? With that, I seek leave to withdraw Amendment 6.
I would be very happy, in deferring to the great experience of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to undertake to make sure that we have the same understanding of Clause 3. I am very happy to give her that reassurance as she withdraws her amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Amendments 7 to 13 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clause 3: Children as victims of domestic abuse
Amendment 14 not moved.
We come now to the group beginning with Amendment 15. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
15: Clause 3, page 3, line 9, at end insert “, including babies from conception onwards”
My Lords, it is a privilege to move Amendment 15 and to speak to Amendments 20, 172 and 179 in my name today. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for her cross-party support of these amendments and the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, for her support of Amendment 172.
I am looking forward to noble Lords’ speeches as we debate the importance of recognising the most vulnerable victims of domestic abuse, and I am delighted that the Institute of Health Visiting, NHS England Safeguarding, the First 1,000 Days movement and For Baby’s Sake have all supported these amendments to improve outcomes for the youngest who are at risk of domestic abuse. We must seize the best opportunity to break the cycle of domestic abuse.
By way of context, Amendment 15, to Clause 3, clarifies that the term “children” includes babies from conception onwards, recognising the vital period from conception to the age of two, as highlighted by the first-class work of the First 1,000 Days movement. Amendment 20, to Clause 7, ensures that the domestic abuse commissioner’s responsibility to encourage good practice regarding children affected by domestic abuse includes babies in utero, infants and children under the age of two.
Amendment 172, to be inserted after Clause 72, makes explicit that the Secretary of State is to make provision for publicly funded trauma-informed and attachment-focused support for parents during pregnancy and before their child reaches the age of two.
Finally, Amendment 170, to Clause 73, stipulates that the Secretary of State’s guidance on the effect of domestic abuse on children will cover babies who were in utero during the abuse and babies and young children aged under two.
Why are these specific amendments needed? The Government are to be hugely congratulated on introducing Clause 3, which ensures that children can also fall under the definition of being victims of domestic abuse. I think all noble Lords view this as a major step forward. However, there is currently insufficient clarity in the definition of a child. In her concluding remarks at Second Reading my noble friend the Minister said:
No age group has been out of the debate, including the unborn child and the foetus.”—[Official Report, 5/1/21; col. 124.]
The fact that it was said demonstrates that it needs to be said. This amendment seeks to probe this concern and is looking for an assurance that the Bill covers children from conception to the age of two.
In the Bill, a child is considered a victim if he or she
“sees, hears or experiences the effect”
of the abuse. Without the clarity of this amendment, it is not difficult to see where the legal battles will lie. The unborn child may be just as much a victim of domestic abuse and may experience and hear domestic abuse but not see it. We can say in this House that it is our intention to strengthen support for victims and improve the effectiveness of the justice system. This amendment gives the clarity needed to ensure that the intent of the Bill to protect all children is upheld.
There are other reasons why Amendments 15, 20, 172 and 179 are so important. If we are serious about strengthening support for victims, intervening as early as possible has the best chance of success. Around 30% of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy, while 40% to 60% of women experiencing domestic abuse are abused during pregnancy. These statistics are shocking. The reason it is important that both the mother and the unborn are viewed as victims is because this is one of the most important developmental stages in the life of a child.
The first 1,001 days, from conception to age two, is a period of uniquely rapid development, when babies are particularly susceptible to their environment. Domestic abuse in pregnancy is associated with poor obstetric outcomes, including low birth weight and preterm weight. A mother’s emotional state can have a direct influence on foetal development by altering the environment in the womb, and ongoing stresses such as domestic abuse can disrupt babies’ neurodevelopment, which can affect the cognitive functioning and emotional regulation of children’s shaping and behavioural and emotional outcomes for years to come.
Another reason why these amendments ensure that the first 1,001 days are a policy and funding focus is that this is the optimal and most effective moment for intervention and breaking the domestic abuse cycle, which is a key focus of this Bill. Pregnancy and childbirth are major milestones in the lives of many mothers and fathers and the time when there is most motivation to change. New fatherhood is a motivator for change in men who use violence in their relationships. Therefore, intervening in the perinatal period and including a focus on parenting may improve engagement in programmes to reduce violence. Identifying the specific emotional challenges and unhelpful coping strategies that are relevant to new mothers and fathers can help target interventions at the most relevant issues to lead to behavioural change. Here I must give credit to Amanda McIntyre and the work of For Baby’s Sake; the organisation is nothing short of inspirational.
Finally, these amendments are important because Amendment 172 includes a requirement that the Secretary of State makes
“provision for publicly-funded trauma-informed and attachment-focussed”
support for parents during pregnancy and before their child reaches the age of two. Presently, interventions generally focus on supporting the needs of victims and survivors alone. Few seek also to target the causes and environments of domestic abuse and its associated consequences, in conjunction with perpetrators and children. Even fewer interventions adopt a whole-family approach that seeks to address the mental health problems experienced by parents and protect and support the mental health of the baby and other children in the family. By recognising babies in this Bill, we have an opportunity for early intervention—to break the cycle of domestic abuse not only for this generation but for future generations, and bring about some of that much-needed cultural and societal change that my noble friend the Minister referred to in her opening remarks at Second Reading.
I am also mindful of a number of concerns that have been raised with me about this amendment. I understand that there may be resistance to it, as children are already included in the Bill. However, having been involved in policy-making across government for many years, I and many noble Lords know that, when resources are constrained, policymakers reach for what they have to do, not necessarily what is most effective. The first 1,001 days—conception to age two—is a moment in time when the impact is greatest. Let us make it easier for officials and future Ministers as they battle for resources and ensure that this golden opportunity to break the cycle is not lost.
Secondly, noble Lords have raised whether these amendments could give opportunity to those wanting to reignite the debate around abortion. I have listened carefully to these arguments, as this is not the intention of this amendment. Ideally, the Government would come forward with their own amendment on Report, appropriately worded if we have not got it quite right. I assure noble Lords that this concern does not need to be an obstacle to this amendment.
NHS safeguarding already has good practice in place for managing this concern. At the moment, an unborn baby who is at risk of significant harm—for example, due to a mother’s substance misuse—can be placed on a child protection plan as an unborn baby. The baby is recorded on the CPIS under the mother’s NHS number; once they have been born, this transfers to the baby.
Of course, in safeguarding and keeping a baby safe physically and emotionally pre-birth, care for a baby starts from conception, but the amendment is about the needs of the baby, the mother and the father, and the reality that we stand a better chance of meeting the needs of any one of these parties by effectively meeting the needs of all three, which means ensuring the availability of trauma-informed and attachment-focused support.
I have written to the Minister, my noble friend Lady Williams, and I and my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, would welcome a dialogue with her on the potential wording of a future amendment that might achieve clarity of protection for these young victims of domestic abuse and ensure that the moment of greatest parental motivation is harnessed. I will listen for an assurance that we can work together to address these concerns on Report. I beg to move.
Following the informative speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, on these amendments I will be very brief. I simply would like an assurance from the Minister that all age groups will be included in this legislation, and that it will provide support and provision not only for pregnant women and the unborn child but for children of all ages whose trauma began in utero.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for her introduction to the amendment and reaffirm that there is no intention to set the unborn child ahead of the rights of the mother or of women. If anyone takes the wrong intention, I assure your Lordships that we will address this in any future amendment so that no confusion is possible.
The amendment essentially arises from programmes from which we have learned a great deal about intervention at the earliest stages to ensure that children have every opportunity to grow normally and prosper physically and emotionally, and that families are effectively supported to do just that. We know of several things that should lead us to want to ensure that this is addressed in the Bill. Around 30% of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy. Some 40% to 60% of women experiencing domestic abuse are abused during pregnancy. The single best predictor of children becoming either perpetrators or victims of domestic abuse later in life is whether they grow up in a home where there is domestic violence. That data comes from UNICEF.
When I was Minister at the Cabinet Office in 2006-07 I introduced an evidence-based programme from America called the Nurse-Family Partnership, which we renamed the Family Nurse Partnership Programme. We used health visitors in this country to work intensively with newly pregnant first-time mothers during their pregnancy, and then for the first two years of the child’s life. The nurse would visit the family at home, and early in the programme would show the young woman she was working with a picture of a brain of a normal child aged two and one of a child the same age who lacked stimulation and had been neglected. At that same age, the brains are profoundly different in shape and size. This graphically illustrated, and allowed the nurse to talk with the young woman about, the fact that the pregnancy and early months have such a profound effect on the baby’s development, growth and, of course, emotional development.
Mothers need support to offer what is necessary. The outcomes for this programme, which was been trialled for 20 years in the US, show that when the child is six years old they are remarkably better in a whole range of ways for the child, mother and—if there is a father—the father too. We know that real programmes like this work and there is very good research evidence backing this up.
The programme that the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, mentioned, For Baby’s Sake, also works with families who are vulnerable and tackles issues at the very earliest opportunity. The research from its work shows that almost all fathers who are involved in the programme and are part of such vulnerable families have been subject to domestic abuse in childhood. The intervention uses trauma-informed work to better support parents in those early days and months and during pregnancy. The birth of a new baby is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, said, the time of greatest optimism from parents about the future of the child. It is therefore the optimum period for intervention. Evidence shows that without appropriate support and intervention at this stage, that optimism disappears after three to four months. Effective intervention works, and it is the best way of breaking that cycle of violence. Surely, that is what our ambition ought to be.
In the commission that I chaired, in the report Breaking Down the Barriers, we were able to show that a key reason for women not looking for help when they and their children experience domestic abuse was the fear of losing their children. This early intervention would open up the promise of support, rather than separation from the children. It would very much be welcomed by women who are fearful. We have the chance here to make a real difference, to intervene in a way that gives potential perpetrators a better way of coping with family life and makes sure that babies are not subject to domestic violence and all that we know follows from that.
This amendment will not be sufficient on its own, but it will be a significant step on the way to transforming this country’s experience of domestic abuse. It will transform the opportunities of families to break from violence being seen as the answer to their problems. I hope the Government will take this opportunity to work with us to show their real determination and ours to make that difference.
After our next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, I will be calling the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top. I am delighted to speak in support of these amendments and join previous speakers in praising For Baby’s Sake. I will keep my remarks brief.
These amendments go with the grain of this widely welcomed Bill, and this visibility in public policy is essential if action is to follow. It follows that babies, both before and after birth, must figure in the Bill in the way that is specified in these amendments if their vulnerability to domestic abuse is to be taken into account. As my noble friend Lady Stroud and the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, both made clear, the statistics on the percentage of women who experience domestic abuse during pregnancy throw the importance of addressing this issue into sharp relief. As a lay person, it strikes me as entirely logical that the added stress resulting from domestic abuse of a mother instinctively desperate to protect her child—especially when it is at its most vulnerable in her womb—will be communicated to the baby and have a negative impact on its physical and neurological development. As we have heard, this has lifelong consequences for physical and mental health, and economically.
These amendments are entirely logical and add to the beneficial impact of this important Bill. I very much hope that the Minister will see fit to respond positively to them.
My Lords, the Domestic Abuse Bill offers an opportunity to deliver substantial improvements to the way we respond to domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls. In preparing for this Bill, we have received a great deal of excellent briefing, and some very brave women have shared their horrendous stories of violence against them and of the impact that it has had on their children. Too often, children are the hidden victims of domestic abuse, and I was particularly struck when I read the briefing from For Baby’s Sake and the Institute of Health Visiting arguing that there are baby “blind spots” in policy, planning and funding which we, in this Bill, could do much to address.
I am no expert in this area, and I was startled to discover that about 30% of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy, although perhaps not so surprised that of those women who suffer abuse, 40% to 60% continue to experience abuse while they are pregnant. The consequences for those children later in life, and for public policy and expenditure as a result, are incalculable. The Covid pandemic has exacerbated this situation dramatically. The December 2020 survey by the Institute of Health Visiting found that 82% of health visitors reported an increase in domestic violence and abuse. In an earlier survey, 83% had perceived an increase in perinatal mental health issues.
As others have said, the first 1,001 days of a child’s life from pregnancy are crucial in safeguarding and nurturing babies’ development. Domestic abuse during this period increases the risks of poor outcomes and has an impact on long-term life chances. It is linked with poor mental and physical health, impaired social development and lower academic achievement, so it is really important to ensure that in the Bill, the definition of “children” includes babies to ensure that they can specifically benefit from targeted interventions to support parents, that the impact on them is recognised in the collection of data, and that they can be highlighted in the domestic abuse commissioner’s encouragement of good practice.
When she concluded at Second Reading, the Minister said, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, reminded us:
“No age group has been left out of the debate, including the unborn child and the foetus.” —[Official Report, 5/1/21; col. 124.]
I am glad to support the spirit of these amendments to ensure that this is reflected on the face of the Bill.
I call the next speaker, Lord Cormack. Ah, we have lost Lord Cormack, but we will try to bring him back. I call Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe.
My Lords, I am rather surprised to see that I am down to speak on Amendment 15. As far as I was aware, I was not scheduled to speak, and there is not a great deal that I can add, but I have listened with great care to the debate so far and can speak from a little bit of experience.
My mother had me during the Second World War. My father was away. She had three teenage boys aged 11, 12 and 13 and she was working in a mill as a weaver. Going to work in the early hours one morning during a blackout, she walked into a parked wagon that she had been unable to see. She lay on the floor unattended to for an hour and a half, while she was carrying me. She was quite ill afterwards but managed to recover. I was told that this was possibly a reason why I have not been what you might call a straightforward individual. I had other issues later in my childhood, during a formative stage, which had quite an influence on me.
I was not scheduled to speak, but that is a little confession. It is true and it is about a life that was affected by what happened in the womb and then later, during my early childhood, so I speak with experience, so the psychiatrists and doctors tell me. That is my contribution. More work needs to be done in this area. What happens to a child in the womb and in the first two years are of vital importance, and more work needs to be done on that.
My Lords, we have had many speakers on this amendment from my noble friend Lady Stroud, whom I support wholeheartedly, not just because of what the amendment says but because of my past work talking about foetal alcohol syndrome. If you look at what happens in domestic abuse situations, this could be an example of what we are talking about today.
It is so important that we recognise and name babies and the unborn in the Bill, because we are encouraging parents to come forward so that they can get the help they want and need for themselves and their baby at this crucial time. I thank the First 1001 Days Movement for its fantastic report Working for Babies, and the For Baby’s Sake Trust. It is a common-sense report that explains that children aged nought to two have been deprived of services and forgotten.
I greatly admire what has been said by other speakers on this amendment. I would like to reflect on pregnancy and childbirth: as a mother of three daughters, I know that it is a major milestone in their lives—or for any woman, and especially for fathers and mothers coming together as a family. That surely must be a motivation to change. Domestic abuse is prevalent in health service contacts, and I would like to have more discussions on health visitors, which is not in this Bill, and antenatal services. We really need to look at nought to two years and ensure that these vulnerable families get the support they need. More importantly, we hear many reports about there being no father in a family.
There are incalculable costs of domestic abuse as a baby that occur in later life, such as crime, poor academic attainment, adverse mental health experiences, depression, suicide, and the inability to stay in healthy relationships.
It is very late, and we have more to get through, but I wish the Government would look at this and have further discussions with my noble friend Lady Stroud and the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, because it is so important that these babies are never forgotten. We must try and nurture them as we do seeds in the ground, to make sure they look healthy and have healthy lives.
After our next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, I will be calling the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for raising this crucial issue. There are four amendments in this group, and I would like to speak to Amendments 15 and 172.
Amendment 15 underlines the importance that the noble Baroness has rightly attached to recognising in the Bill the developing child in the womb. Amendment 172 seeks to place a requirement on the Secretary of State to make provisions for publicly funded trauma-informed and attachment-focused therapeutic work to be made available to all parents of children aged under two years old, where those children are victims of or otherwise affected by domestic abuse.
In parentheses, I also support Amendments 20 and 179 relating to the functions and powers of the domestic abuse commissioner and the Secretary of State.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, reminded us, at Second Reading the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, said—and I wholeheartedly agree with her—
“No age group has been left out of the debate, including the unborn child and the foetus”.—[Official Report, 5/1/21; col. 124.]
She went on, though, to say that noble Lords
“rightly drew attention to the devastating impact that domestic abuse can have on children and young people. I talked about the foetus earlier—those adverse impacts start when that child is in the womb. Growing up in a household of fear and intimidation can impact children’s health, well-being and development, with lasting effects into adulthood—in fact, all their lives.”—[Official Report, 5/1/21; col. 129.]
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is undoubtedly right. Her words reinforce the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, about the importance of naming the unborn in the Bill, which is what Amendment 15 seeks to do.
As it stands, the Bill’s definition of children does not adequately capture the child in the womb or acknowledge that they too can be victims of domestic abuse. As Amendment 15 recognises, and as other noble Lords have said, there are currently significant baby blind spots in the legislation; “a child”, as a catch-all term, does not adequately encapsulate the unborn’s unique experience of abuse in utero.
As the Bill stands, there is no requirement on the commissioner to encourage best practice in the identification of domestic abuse affecting the unborn, and likewise no requirement on the Secretary of State to issue guidance on how domestic abuse affects the unborn. This lacuna leaves a large gap in our approach to domestic abuse policy. The unborn experience of domestic abuse in utero can live with a person for the rest of their life. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said, it has been suggested that 30% of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy.
We can come to a fuller understanding of the issue by looking at it from a positive, rather than negative, perspective. I once participated in an inquiry chaired by the late Lord Rawlinson of Ewell, a celebrated Queen’s Counsel and former Attorney-General. The inquiry examined sentience in the womb. It concluded that, rather than being born as a blank slate or the first page of a new book, at birth a newborn baby already has surprisingly extensive experiences of the surrounding world. It was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, recount his own personal experience of the impact of an experience he had while in the womb.
Yehudi Menuhin, the renowned violinist who became a Member of your Lordships’ House, once said he first learned his love of music in his mother’s womb. Indeed, his mother was once told, “Madam, your womb is a veritable conservatoire.” Significant research has shown that listening to and experiencing music stimulates the brain of a baby in the womb and assists the growth of brain structures. Some studies suggest that babies remember music they listened to in the womb for months after being born. Music during pregnancy can have a soothing and uplifting effect on the pregnant woman, but also a positive influence on her unborn child. The womb can be a child’s first concert hall.
Conversely, as intimated during our debate, the Rawlinson inquiry also heard evidence of the effect of negative experiences on the development of a child in the womb and the long-term sequelae. Sadly, the unborn can experience any number of physical traumas when a perpetrator targets the baby violently while still in a mother’s womb. The research also indicates that domestic abuse during pregnancy is associated with poor obstetric outcomes, including low birth weight and pre-term birth.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, intimated, a mother’s emotional state has a direct influence on foetal development. As we have heard, stressors can negatively disrupt neurodevelopment in utero, which in turn impacts the cognitive functioning and emotional regulation of the child. This can be a life sentence. For all these reasons, I hope that Amendment 15 will be accepted.
I will also speak briefly about the importance of Amendment 172 about access to support for parents. The whole Bill is for naught if there are no provisions to allow people to get the help they want and so often desperately need. This admirable legislation is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop a step change in our response to domestic abuse. The reality is that the vast majority of victims—an estimated 70%--never set foot in a refuge and remain at home or in alternative housing. They must therefore have access to support that can actually change behaviour. We must recognise that these first days and weeks of life are also an effective time for intervention. Surely we want to be pragmatic with this Bill.
Like others, I was struck by an evaluation of the For Baby’s Sake programme, led by King’s College London, which provides trauma-informed and attachment-focused therapeutic support for parents. It found that support at this first moment—to which we can all point and say, “That is when I began to be me”—can harness parents’ motivation and empower them to make changes for their baby and themselves. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, alluded to this in her excellent contribution earlier.
The Committee should note that a SafeLives report highlights that 80% of survivors said they think interventions for perpetrators are a good idea. A main conclusion from Breaking Down the Barriers: Findings of the National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage was the call from survivors for trauma-informed support to break traumatic cycles.
Trauma-informed and attachment-focused therapeutic work is about meeting parents where they are, not where we would want them to be. This therapeutic work should be publicly funded and accessible to all parents in the same way that we offer universal mental health support through the National Health Service. Amendment 172 is therefore about changing the cultural and social landscape around domestic abuse for the next generation. If we only fund refuge and not intervention, we miss a crucial piece of the puzzle in breaking the cycle of domestic abuse.
Amendments 15 and 172 provide the right architecture and structure, a firmer and surer foundation, for making the womb and early days a less dangerous place in which to be, and they help to create an environment in which the baby is loved, cherished, and nurtured. On a personal level, having recently seen the picture of a new, soon to be born, grandchild in the womb—a magical glimpse, now routinely provided by science, of the infinite beauty represented by the delicate formation of a unique, new human being—I am especially pleased to be able to add my voice to those supporting the noble Baroness and her cross-party supporters.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow my noble friend Lord Alton of Liverpool. In speaking in support of these amendments, I must declare an interest as chair of the Commission on Alcohol Harm.
I would like to reinforce the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, on foetal abuse by alcohol during pregnancy. The UK is estimated to have the fourth highest rate of alcohol use during pregnancy in the world, with an estimated 41% of women using alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol exposure in the womb, particularly in early pregnancy, can result in foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the severe end of which is foetal alcohol syndrome. It is the most common cause of non-genetic learning disability worldwide, and costs the UK around £2 billion a year. Neurological difficulties affect communication, comprehension, attention span, executive function, social skills and decision-making. The huge impact on the child’s wellbeing, from damage that started long before birth, may also be indicative of alcohol-driven domestic abuse later in life.
The Children’s Commissioner’s 2018 report, A Crying Shame, found,
“over 50,000 children aged 0-5 years old – including around 8,300 babies under 1 – living in households where… domestic violence and adult alcohol or drug dependency, and adult severe mental ill-health”
were present. These three factors are often found together.
Shockingly, 26% of 18 to 25 year-olds in the UK are unaware that it is safest not to drink when pregnant. What are we doing to make new mothers aware of the risk of foetal alcohol syndrome and the need to avoid the unintended domestic abuse of unborn children? What are we doing to help these women? The cyclical link is that they might use alcohol to cope with the abuse they experience but, in the process, they inadvertently damage their baby.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, explained, there is also evidence that a high level of fear in pregnant women can result in a high level of anxiety in the born baby. Although the wording of the amendments might not yet be quite right, the intention behind them must not be lost, and I hope that the Government will discuss better wording for them with the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud.
My Lords, I am very glad to support the amendments in the names of my noble friend Lady Stroud, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, and I have added our names.
It is important to note that the Bill deals with abuse of a particular kind—namely, domestic abuse. So far as I can see, it has no connection whatever with abortion, as somebody mentioned earlier. I am glad to support all that has been said. What the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, said about Amendment 172 is of particular importance, but I intend simply to generalise on all the amendments. All of them deal with children under two years of age and include babies in utero. I have two principal remarks that relate to them all.
First, damage to these children and babies is likely to have effects during the rest of their lives. For me, that is underlined by the magnitude of the awards of damages where negligence is shown to have been the cause of damage that occurred at this stage of their lives. Secondly, during this period of their lives, children develop very quickly and therefore, where abuse is inflicted over a period, the cumulative effect is likely to be magnified by that factor. The lockdown has, sadly, provided many of us with evidence of the rapidity of children’s development if we have experienced the birth of grandchildren or great-grandchildren during this time. Painfully, photographs show us how much of the thrill of contact in the early days we are missing. My final observation is that I believe that in some relationships pregnancy causes a deterioration, which leads to harmful effects on the child in utero.
For those reasons, where applicable, I strongly support these amendments. Knowing my noble friend as I do, I am sure that they will receive sympathetic consideration, particularly in view of her Second Reading speech. It is very important that this area of children’s development is taken into account as a very relevant factor in the context of domestic abuse.
My Lords, I acknowledge all the points that noble Lords have made on this group, and I totally agree with the sentiment that trauma to babies and small children is of the utmost importance in determining a child’s future. Indeed, I was saddened and sickened to discover that around 30% of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy, let alone the number of women for whom it continues throughout pregnancy. I am fully supportive of emphasising the need for help and support for mothers and the little victims whose chances are damaged before they are even born.
However, I want to express a twinge of concern about the wording of Amendment 15. It talks about
“including babies from conception onwards”
in the definition of a child. I have no wish to split hairs, but I am struggling with the idea that “shortly after conception” falls within any technical definition of “baby”. Would it be possible to get some clarity on that? I absolutely accept that it has nothing to do with abortion, but I want it to be technically correct.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, talked very informatively and movingly about pregnancy being an absolutely key time for intervention, as the whole relationship can be turned around, and the importance of resource allocation at that time. I particularly want to support Amendment 172: the requirement for the Secretary of State to make available publicly funded, trauma-informed and attachment-focused therapeutic work.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, is absolutely right when she says it is about resource allocation, but I wonder whether babies are already included in this part of the Bill because children are already covered from conception, as the Minister said.
Whether this is the right place for them or not, I am happy to support these amendments. Even if the Bill already covers it, it is definitely worth the conversation.
Amendment 15 would add an unborn child, from conception onwards, to the definition of a child under Clause 3 of the Bill, which addresses the issue of children as victims of domestic abuse. Clause 7 provides that the domestic abuse commissioner must encourage good practice in identifying victims of abuse, including affected children. Amendment 20 would specifically add
“babies in utero, infants and young children aged under two years”
to the definition of children affected by domestic abuse.
Amendment 172 provides that:
“The Secretary of State must make provision for publicly-funded trauma-informed and attachment-focussed therapeutic work to be made available to all parents of children aged under two years old where those children are victims of or otherwise affected by domestic abuse.”
Amendment 179 states that, where the Secretary of State issues guidance on the effect of domestic abuse on children, it must include,
“in particular babies who were in utero at the time of the abuse, and … babies and young children aged under two years old”.
We fully agree that there is a need to consider the impact of domestic abuse on young babies and the importance of protecting pregnant women and the child they are carrying, and, likewise, with the fact that trauma from domestic abuse at a young age can have long-term consequences.
Clause 3 now recognises children who witness or are impacted by abuse as victims of that abuse—that is children of any age, including babies. I noted with interest the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, based on her experience of how officials react when resources are limited and there is any doubt about what legislation requires them to do. Adequate resourcing will be crucial to delivering the objectives of this Bill.
I appreciate that this has already been said more than once, but I repeat that it has been estimated that 30% of domestic violence begins during pregnancy. It often escalates during this time as well, and represents a real danger to women. We know that domestic abuse during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, infection, premature birth or injury to the child once born, and it is also a major factor leading to complications and death in, or related to, pregnancy.
The impact of domestic abuse during pregnancy does not end at the birth, and is associated with long-term harms to both women and children. Domestic abuse during pregnancy is associated with increased risk of perinatal and neonatal mortality, higher rates of depression among women, low birth weight and a range of long-term emotional, behavioural and traumatic impacts on children.
However, we do have concerns about the possible impact of the inclusion of babies in utero in the Bill. Despite the risk of harm and attack faced by pregnant women, the current long-standing offence of child destruction is rarely used and the need to prove the perpetrator’s intention to kill has made securing convictions difficult. Yet a national inquiry found that some 24%, I think, of 295 maternal deaths over a three-year period were women who had experienced domestic abuse. Of these 70 women, 19 had been murdered. This is an area that the Government should review. In the meantime, it would not be helpful to have references to babies in utero in the Bill without consultation or wider consideration of the impact this could have on legal principles of bodily autonomy.
This issue with the amendment as presently worded is one that the movers—the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top—have recognised, and I am sure it can be addressed.
Finally, I reiterate that we recognise the importance of the general issue that is raised by the amendment about early intervention to break the cycle of violence and ensure support for mothers and babies.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, and particularly my noble friend Lady Stroud for tabling these amendments. She and I—as well as every noble Lord who has spoken—share the commitment to protecting all children who are victims of domestic abuse. I noted that she and the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and indeed my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, outlined the very different developmental journeys that a traumatised child will take through their life compared to his or her non-traumatised counterpart.
These amendments seek to recognise the impact of domestic abuse on very young children, including unborn children. Amendment 15 would make explicit reference to unborn children as part of the definition of a child under Clause 3. Amendment 20 is similar in that it would make explicit reference to babies in utero, infants and children under two years old in Clause 7(1)(c)(iii), which provides for the function of the domestic abuse commissioner to encourage good practice in the identification of children affected by domestic abuse. Amendment 172 seeks to make provision for publicly funded therapeutic services for parents of children under the age of two who are victims of domestic abuse. Amendment 179 would make explicit reference to unborn babies and children under the age of two in the statutory guidance provided for in Clause 73.
As my noble friend said, under Clause 3, a child is to be regarded as a victim of domestic abuse if he or she sees, hears or experiences the effects of domestic abuse and is related to the direct victim of the abuse or, indeed, to the perpetrator. A child is defined as all persons under 18 years of age. All children will benefit from the provisions in the Bill, including Part 2, which recognises the impact of domestic abuse on children in the statutory functions of the domestic abuse commissioner, and Part 4, which places a new duty on tier 1 local authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in safe accommodation.
In addition, Clause 73 provides that the Secretary of State may issue guidance on the kinds of behaviour that amount to domestic abuse and must issue guidance on the effect of domestic abuse on children. As such, I am confident that the need for statutory agencies to recognise and respond to the impact of domestic abuse on children of all ages is already embedded in the Bill and the associated statutory guidance.
In conjunction with my noble friend, the Government recognise that pregnancy can be a trigger for domestic abuse and that existing abuse may get worse during pregnancy or after giving birth. Some of the statistics that noble Lords have given are absolutely shocking. My noble friend Lady Stroud talked about substance abuse interventions that might be made during pregnancy. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and my noble friend Lady Newlove talked about foetal alcohol syndrome and I think the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay—it might have been my noble friend Lady Newlove—talked about how some pregnant women will self-medicate to try to numb the pain of what they are going through. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, came in with an unexpected intervention, because he did not think he was speaking, about the trauma that can happen in the womb, unrelated to domestic abuse.
The statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children makes clear that local authorities, with their partners, have a responsibility to develop clear local protocols for assessment. These protocols should reflect where assessments require particular care and include unborn children where there are concerns, which is probably very similar to the issue that my noble friend Lady Stroud was talking about with substance abuse interventions. Following a Section 47 inquiry provided for in the Children Act 2004, if there are concerns which relate to an unborn child, consideration should be given to whether to hold a child protection conference prior to that child’s birth. Decisions regarding the child’s future safety, health and development will be made at the conference. I think that covers the traumas that noble Lords have been talking about.
Finally, I reassure my noble friend that the Government are committed to protecting all children, including the very youngest, from the heinous crime of domestic abuse. I know that she will join me in welcoming the imminent publication of Andrea Leadsom’s early years healthy development review, which will make recommendations to improve the health and development outcomes of babies and infants and will consider the impact of adverse childhood experiences such as domestic abuse. In addition, our forthcoming domestic abuse strategy will consider the role of early intervention work with children, including the very youngest, ensuring that they are not forgotten.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about community-based support, and I look forward to having a full debate about that later in Committee, but I hope that, in light of my explanation and the reassurance I have given, my noble friend will feel content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who contributed to debating the amendment, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, who put her name to it. These issues have hugely benefited from noble Lords’ various perspectives. I also thank my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern for signing the amendment. It is a huge privilege to have his support. I thank noble Lords for expressing their commitment to ensuring that babies are recognised as potential victims of domestic abuse in utero and through to the age of two.
I have looked at various government children strategies. Over and over again, unless it was an early intervention strategy or one specifically linked to the early years, each one I looked at did not contain nought to two year-olds. While I completely understand my noble friend the Minister’s comments that babies from conception to the age of two are already included in the Bill, it is my concern that unless they are in the Bill they will be forgotten again in strategy terms when we get to policy-making. However, I am reassured that she is personally committed to ensuring that all children who could be victims of domestic abuse are protected by the Bill. On that basis, and with the hope of future conversation with her and the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Clause 3 agreed.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 16. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division should make that clear during the course of the debate.
Clause 4: Appointment of Commissioner
16: Clause 4, page 3, line 18, leave out “appoint” and insert “make a full-time appointment of”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is appointed full-time.
My Lords, with this group, which comprises Amendments 16 to 19, we turn to the role of the domestic abuse commissioner. I do not want to delay the commissioner-designate being able to drop that suffix—it is a bit tempting to refer to her as “elect”, but that is just what she cannot be.
At Second Reading I referred to the commissioner-designate’s energy and how much she and her team have managed to do without statutory backing. I was surprised to discover that the appointment is on a four days a week basis. That is the formal appointment, at any rate; it must be a challenge to keep to four days, if she does. I have not discussed this with Nicole Jacobs, and I must make it clear that this comes out of my head and is not something she has suggested. I suspect that she is far too professional to have done so in any event. I also suspect that she does not watch the clock. She would say that she knew what she was applying for; I would say that not making it a full-time appointment is mean-minded and gives a message about whether the Government regard the commissioner’s role and work to be as serious as it is. That is certainly not what they want to project.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, who has had to withdraw from the debate, emailed me when he did so to explain that something had come up that would need his attention. He had previously emailed me to say that he very much agreed with this amendment.
Turning to Amendment 17, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has the word “independent” in her title and so did her predecessor, because that is in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Personnel change and so can attitudes to the role on the part of the Home Secretary. The postholder can obviously change; people move on.
There has not been the same concern as during the passage of the Modern Slavery Act to designate —if I can use that term without it being confusing when used as a verb—the commissioner as independent through the means of the title. Whether that is because the various commissioners over the last few years are all spirited and clearly their own persons, I do not know, but titles are significant. Third parties would be justified in questioning the independence of a postholder so dependent on the Secretary of State as Clause 6 makes her.
Amendments 18 and 19, in my name and that of my noble friend, together amount to the right for the commissioner to appoint her or his own staff. Again, I point to the Modern Slavery Act, under which Section 40 provides that the commissioner may appoint staff—no more, no less. The commissioner will be restricted as to the numbers of staff and their salary levels, because their appointments will all have to be within a budget set by the Secretary of State. However thorough and sensitive the consultation may be when the Secretary of State appoints staff, we believe that the commissioner should be in charge and should be seen to be in charge.
My Lords, I am unclear as to the precise status of the commissioner. I have one key question: is the commissioner the accounting officer for the commission? If I knew the answer, I could either shut up or not proceed with any of the other points I want to make. I am not going to get an answer, but I invite the Minister to give an answer if possible, because it indicates certain things.
Amendment 16 would, it seems, prevent the commissioner taking on any other role which might be relevant or helpful to the role of commissioner. I am not clear as to whether full-time means excluding any other roles.
The whole thrust of Clauses 4, 5 and 6 is a worry because it appears that the Secretary of State wants to pull all the levers. This becomes really clear in Clause 8. I am therefore very sympathetic to the thrust of these amendments and the Minister will have to make a convincing case to avoid my supporting them at another stage. I also note that Refuge is very supportive of this group. Can we have a clear answer on whether the commissioner is the accounting officer for the commission?
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Burt, for a series of amendments throughout the Bill in relation to the work of the commissioner. This is clearly a crucial role and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I have been very impressed with the performance of the commissioner in her designate role.
It is clearly very important that the commissioner is able to be as independent as possible. In the update she gave to the Public Bill Committee on her work to map out domestic abuse services, she expressed very real concern about local authorities redistributing their funding simply to meet their statutory duty and therefore deprioritising those critical community-based services that can intervene earlier and prevent a survivor being forced to flee to a refuge. She spoke of her support for migrant victims of domestic abuse remaining undimmed and said that much more must be done to support those with no recourse to public funds. This is very promising in terms of someone who is prepared to be robust. That we have received a brief from her supporting a series of amendments to the Bill is ample evidence of the robust independence that is required.
While I believe that this is likely to be a highly pressurised full-time job, I wonder whether it is necessary to put such a requirement into statute, as Amendment 16 proposes. There might always be circumstances where a commissioner was appointed with excellent qualifications who also some had some other commitments, and I would not want to lose that flexibility.
As for the amendment placing “independent” in the title, I do not object, but wonder whether it is really necessary, as the implication would be that other statutory commissioners who did not have the word independent in their title were not, in fact, independent. Very recently, in the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, the House passed an amendment creating the new post of Patient Safety Commissioner. Most noble Lords who spoke in support stressed the importance of the independence of the commissioner. But independence is not in the title; nor is it in the title of the Children’s Commissioner, who has also shown robust independence.
However, when it comes to the wording of Clause 6, and the other two amendments put forward by the noble Baroness, I sympathise with her. Why should it be the responsibility of the Secretary of State to provide the commissioner with staff, accommodation, equipment and other facilities? And why is there the contrast between the Secretary of State obtaining the commissioner’s approval for staff, yet only having to consult the commissioner before providing any accommodation, equipment or other facilities? It brings us back to the very pertinent point made by my noble friend Lord Rooker about whether the commissioner has accounting officer status. I have with me the draft framework document, published in February 2020 and issued by the Home Secretary, which stated:
“With respect to funding, the day to day management of the Commissioner’s budget, in conformity with relevant Home Office rules and processes, rests with the Chief of Staff to the Commissioner who will have delegated authority for the Commissioner’s budget. The Commissioner and her Chief of Staff will ensure that budgets are managed in accordance with Managing Public Money. The Commissioner and her Chief of Staff will further ensure that expenditure from the Commissioner’s budget will align with the Commissioner’s strategic plan for the relevant period.”
That does not quite answer my noble friend’s question, but it is worth exploring in later amendments and on Report just how independent the commissioner will be.
This is a very useful short debate, the key point being that the success of the commissioner depends very much on the personality of the postholder, and that is looking very good indeed. But it is also important that the legislative framework enables her to act as independently as possible, as so much of her credibility will rest on this.
My Lords, I speak to Amendments 16, 17, 18 and 19, which are of particular interest to me as the former Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales. Noble Lords may remember that I had to make a complete new office, once the first commissioner, Louise Casey, stood down from the role to take on the Troubled Families Unit. I fully understand how the designate domestic abuse commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, feels. I have full confidence in her as domestic abuse commissioner, as she is very articulate and knowledgeable, and brings a different context to the role.
I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on the flexibility of a part-time appointment. When I began as Victims’ Commissioner, it was part-time, because I had my other role as champion for anti-social behaviour. The Victims’ Commissioner role was more or less full-time, so I was working for many hours not counted for. I had a conversation with the Secretary of State, and then worked full-time. I therefore agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on giving the commissioner the flexibility to have discussions with the Secretary of State, whether that role be full-time, four days, or three days. We should take a flexible approach.
Independence is an interesting word, and again I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that it comes down to the robustness of the individual. Independence to people outside can mean one of two things: that one is independent from government and is not saying “Yes Minister”. Independence can also provide armour when having discussions with the Secretary of State and other departments. But it is important for everybody to recognise that the domestic abuse commissioner is independent from government because they are advising the Government on what is essential.
Amendments 18 and 19 are the most important: I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about appointing staff, which is something I had to challenge in my first three years as Victims’ Commissioner. It has to come from who you want to work with: if the Secretary of State picks your staff, this really does not show that you are independent. You need to feel comfortable with your staff, so that you can map out a plan of work you want to do and, to be perfectly honest, so that you can feel you have loyalty within your team and know you are going out there and giving independent advice back to government.
The commissioner must have the ability to appoint staff, but this depends on the budget as well. How big a budget you can have, and how much you can allocate to a proper team for a national role, is really important. I had six members in my team, finally, but this is a national role and it is so important that we support the domestic abuse commissioner with all the tools available.
On that point, I ask my noble friend the Minister: has the designate commissioner already got an office of her own, so that she can begin her role once the Bill gets Royal Assent? It is so important to have independence from government, so that victims and survivors of domestic abuse can have the confidence to come in to see the commissioner and can have clarity, and be able to feel, that they have an open, practical and personal office to come to.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned, it is robust experience and personality that will make the role excellent, and Nicole Jacobs is an ideal individual for it. I just want the Government to give her the tools to work with and the budget to enrol the staff that she should have to give confidence to those on the outside—so that victims and survivors of domestic abuse can believe in the role and the passion that Nicole Jacobs brings to it.
My Lords, I wish to speak in support of the spirit of these amendments and the arguments so clearly explained by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Newlove, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. They have explained why these amendments are needed, certainly in spirit, even if the wording of some of them is not quite right for the face of the Bill.
If the commissioner position was made full-time and the commissioner was able to appoint staff, they could better determine the scope of work and allocation of resources to respond according to need. It is an important fact that the commissioner needs to have some control.
To take one example—I have already declared that I chaired the Commission on Alcohol Harm—we know that, in general, lower socioeconomic groups experience higher levels of alcohol-related harm, particularly violence. The poorest groups are most affected by alcohol-related domestic abuse. You see this with the number of instances of alcohol-related domestic abuse every year, which are fourteenfold in that group compared with the least deprived. The prevalence rate of alcohol-related domestic violence is five times higher among the most disadvantaged groups compared to the least disadvantaged.
This is a huge job. The commissioner must be free to make decisions on how the budget is used, have their own independent office space and not feel in any way stifled by any influence from government in the work that has to be undertaken.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee has outlined, the aim of this group of amendments is to ensure that the commissioner is independent and able to perform her role unhampered by time and resource constraints.
The term “independent” would be in the title, reinforcing, as with the role of the anti-slavery commissioner, that this person can be free to represent victims as they see fit, reporting to the whole of Parliament, not just the Secretary of State, and paid full-time. This has been questioned by several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. The thinking behind this, frankly, is that it is demeaning to the post to imagine that its holder could ever be regarded as a part-timer, given the scale of the challenge she faces. However, we did not intend that there should be no flexibility in the role at all.
The commissioner should of course appoint their own staff, carrying out the challenges of the role as they see fit within the constraints set out in this Bill; the ex-Victims’ Commissioner, the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, emphasised this, showing how important that element is. It is a hugely important role: let us give her the tools to do the job.
Amendment 16 would ensure that the domestic abuse commissioner is appointed full-time. Amendment 17 would include the word “independent” in the title of the domestic abuse commissioner. Clause 6 lays down that the Secretary of State must provide the commissioner with staff and other resources; Amendments 18 and 19 seek to change this, so that the commissioner would appoint staff rather than the Secretary of State.
The Government clearly saw the role of the domestic abuse commissioner as part-time, but already that role has been extended from three to four days a week because, as the Government put it in Committee in the Commons, the designate commissioner
“told us she was doing four days of work a week.”—[Official Report, Commons, Domestic Abuse Bill Committee, 9/6/20; col. 133.]
How was the earlier conclusion reached that three days would be sufficient? Was it because the designate commissioner said that it would be sufficient or because the Government said that it would be sufficient? Are the four days that now apply meant to cover only the role of the designate commissioner or are they meant to apply as well, following this Bill becoming an Act and the commissioner no longer being designate, to the role when it has the full statutory responsibilities set out in the Bill? If four days is meant to apply to the role of domestic abuse commissioner once this Bill becomes an Act, will the four days be increased to five if the commissioner says that she is doing five days of work a week? On the basis of what assessment, and by whom, of workload and responsibilities did the Government reach the conclusion that this should be a part-time rather than a full-time position? I hope the Minister can give some responses to those points.
The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to appoint staff for the commissioner and provide the resources the commissioner needs to carry out the role. That gives the Secretary of State very real power over a commissioner who surely needs to be independent of the Secretary of State, bearing in mind that the commissioner must not feel inhibited from drawing attention, if necessary, to authorities and organisations that may be falling short in addressing domestic abuse issues, including government.
However, the Secretary of State, through the power to appoint staff and determine the resources needed by the commissioner, has a considerable oversight power over the commissioner and their effectiveness in delivering on their statutory role through the breadth and depth of work they can undertake with the resources provided. Indeed, Clause 6(1) states that the Secretary of State must provide the commissioner with the staff, accommodation, equipment and other facilities
“as the Secretary of State considers necessary for the carrying out of the Commissioner’s functions”—
not what the commissioner considers necessary, or even the view of an independent body or person, if there is a difference in view between the Secretary of State and the commissioner on this issue.
The former Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, told the Joint Committee that looked at the Bill that he was concerned that the Secretary of State would have too much control of the domestic abuse commissioner’s budget and the appointment of staff. He said that immediately as he took up his post, the Home Office proposed a reduction in the funds Parliament had been told he would be given. Mr Hyland described the process of appointment of staff as “unbelievable”, saying that it could take many months—up to seven, I think he said—for staff to take up their posts. I simply ask what guarantees the Government can give that the issues faced by Mr Hyland will not be repeated for the domestic abuse commissioner. I also look forward to the Government’s response to the other points that I and other noble Lords have raised during the course of this debate.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for setting out her reasons for tabling these amendments and all noble Lords who took part in the debate on them.
Amendment 16 would mandate that the commissioner role be a full-time appointment. We do not think it is necessary to add that to the Bill. As has been noted in the debate, many statutory officers operate on a part-time basis, in line with similar commissioners, for instance, the anti-slavery commissioner and the lead commissioner for countering extremism—two other subjects which we take very seriously.
On advice from executive search specialists, we advertised for a part-time designate commissioner so we could attract as wide a range of suitably qualified and high-profile candidates as possible. As a result of that exercise, we found one such person, Nicole Jacobs, who was appointed initially on the basis of three days a week. We said at the time of her appointment that that time commitment would be reviewed after six months, and following that review, it was increased to four days a week with her full agreement. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, we will look again at that time commitment before commencing Part 2 of the Bill and keep that matter under review. But we would be denying ourselves the opportunity to appoint a highly suitable and qualified candidate in future if the legislation insisted this had to be a full-time appointment.
If I may say so, there is a slight tension between the amendments brought forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She wants to underline the independence of the commissioner by changing her title, but then setting out more clearly in the Bill how she ought to fulfil that role. That seems to be slightly inconsistent. It is also important to note that the commissioner is not a one-woman operation; she will be supported by an office comprising around a dozen full-time equivalent staff. Reflecting modern ways of working, that will be a mixture of full and part-time appointments.
Turning to Amendment 17, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that nomenclature can be important, and symbolically so. But I do not think we should get into the habit of labelling every commissioner or other statutory office holder in law as independent. Granted, as she mentioned, we have the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, but we do not have an independent victims commissioner, an independent children’s commissioner or, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, mentioned, a new independent commissioner created under the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill. I do not think any noble Lord would suggest that holders or previous holders of this office, such as my noble friend Lady Newlove, were any less independent because the word did not appear in statute in their job title.
Nicole Jacobs has amply demonstrated her independence from the Government—not least, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, pointed out, in the way she is campaigning for changes to the Bill. Her independence will come from the statutory framework provided for in Part 2, boosted by the provisions in the framework document, but also by the way she conducts herself once she is formally appointed in the role after this Bill receives Royal Assent. To add a word to her title in the Bill would in no practical terms augment her independence, so we do not think that amendment is necessary.
Amendments 18 and 19 would mean that the commissioner, rather than the Home Secretary, would be able to appoint staff for her office. Clause 6 provides for the staffing of the commissioner’s office by the Home Secretary, as well as accommodation, equipment and other facilities. It does so for a simple practical reason. We are creating here a statutory officeholder, not a body corporate. The commissioner will have no separate legal persona and therefore cannot, as a matter of law, appoint her own staff or otherwise enter into other contracts. To answer the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the accounting officer function therefore rests with the Home Office. We will write to set out that position more fully, not least because several noble Lords were interested in it and picked up on it.
Consequently, as a matter of form, the commissioner’s staff will be Home Office civil servants. Crucially, however, Clause 6(2) provides that the commissioner must approve the appointment of all her staff. To address the point raised by my noble friend Lady Newlove, one of the contracts that she cannot sign is for office space. Obviously, she does not exist in law until the Bill is passed, but the Home Office is looking for suitable office space for her—not located in Marsham Street, where the Home Office is, to illustrate her independence. At the moment, like so many other people, she is working from home because of the pandemic.
In addition, we have made further provision in the framework document provided for under Clause 11. This sets out how the commissioner and the Home Secretary will work together, including on matters such as governance, funding and staffing of the commissioner’s office. The draft framework document makes it clear that, while the commissioner’s staff will be provided by the Home Office, the commissioner will have day-to-day direction and control of staff in support of her work. Moreover, as I said, appointments can be made only after consultation with, and with the approval of, the commissioner. In fact, the commissioner or her chief of staff will conduct recruitment campaigns and the commissioner will be responsible for deciding whom to appoint. I hope that these reassurances are sufficient for the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have weighed in on this subject. Committee stage is the opportunity for us to make our views known, even if we do not really think that something should be in the statute. I am not the first, and I shall not be the last, to have used that opportunity.
I hope I have not given the impression that we are anything other than extremely impressed by the job that Nicole Jacobs has done and is doing. I mentioned her energy and determination, and could go on about her grasp of the subject and so on. I would be pleased if noble Lords took all that as read.
I hope it is not really inconsistent—is that what I heard the Minister say?—to call for independence but suggest that the job should be full-time or, to put it another way, not part-time. I do not think it is at all inconsistent. I cannot believe the Minister is suggesting that, in the other bit of time that might be available, the postholder would take up a position in any way in conflict with acting as domestic abuse commissioner. That would clearly not be appropriate.
Independence is in more than the title, of course, and the question from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was very good. The answer has rather confirmed much of what noble Lords have been saying. I looked at the titles of the other commissioners but, as I have said, it very much exercised the House at the time of the 2015 Act. I did not read independence, in the way we have been talking about it, into the draft framework document.
I liked the reference to giving you armour when dealing with the Home Secretary that the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, made. She is right to point to the—“loyalty” may suggest something I do not want to suggest, but the buy-in from the team. This is teamwork led by the commissioner.
I still feel that being seen to be independent is important, but most important of all is having the tools. Noble Lords have talked a good deal about the ability to hire one’s own staff. Coming out of this group of amendments, that may be the issue we will want to return to at the next stage, but at this moment I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 16.
Amendment 16 withdrawn.
Amendment 17 not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6: Staff etc
Amendments 18 and 19 not moved.
Clause 6 agreed.
Clause 7: General functions of Commissioner
Amendment 20 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 21. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate and anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear during the debate.
21: Clause 7, page 4, line 20, at end insert “, including substance use, addictions and mental health support.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment specifies that the good practice that the Commissioner must encourage in providing protection and support to people affected by domestic abuse must include substance use and mental health support.
My Lords, as I have already, I declare my interest as chair of the Commission on Alcohol Harm. I am most grateful to all who worked with me on our report. The noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, was one of the commissioners, and I know he is logged in and may have questions later. He missed signing up to speak today.
These amendments are designed to ensure that the close link between substances, particularly alcohol, and domestic abuse is taken into account throughout the Bill. I have already referred to the close link between alcohol and domestic abuse. A World Health Organization report in 2006 drew attention to research that found that alcohol use increases both the occurrence and severity of domestic violence.
Alcohol Change UK has reported police data showing that domestic incident call-outs increase at times when alcohol consumption is elevated—for example, during contentious football matches or cultural events such as new year. Shockingly, within intimate relationships in which one partner has a problem with alcohol or other drugs, domestic abuse is more likely to occur than not. This was reported by Galvani more than a decade ago, yet still continues behind closed doors and not really recognised.
Although closely linked, the relationship between alcohol and domestic abuse is complex. We know that alcohol is not the root cause of abuse, and it is certainly never an excuse for abusive behaviour.
To add to the complexity, alcohol may be drunk by the victim as well as the perpetrator. Women who have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence are more than twice as likely to have an alcohol problem as women with little experience of violence or abuse.
We should also not forget the children. The Commission on Alcohol Harm heard of children terrified of their parents, and who did not feel safe at home, or felt so hopeless and upset that they wished they did not exist. One woman spoke about how she used to stay in her bedroom, too scared to leave or talk to anyone, and tried to be invisible and quiet, hoping that her alcohol-dependent mother would not come after her. She recounted how her mother and father would abuse her mentally, emotionally and sometimes physically.
Data from the Children’s Commissioner estimates that over half a million children in England are living in households where domestic abuse, parental substance misuse and mental ill health occur to a moderate to severe extent. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a new urgency, and made it ever more important for us to act now. During the first lockdown, calls to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline rose by 66%. At the same time, home drinking increased. The Royal College of Psychiatrists found that the number of adults drinking at high risk increased by almost 90% between February and September last year, from 4.8 million to 8.5 million. Surveys revealed that more than one in 7 of those living with a child under 18 felt that alcohol had made the tension in their household worse during lockdown.
Alcohol can also be used in an abusive relationship to give the perpetrator control over the victim by limiting access to alcohol even though it risks serious medical consequences for the victim if they go into sudden withdrawal, including hallucinations, seizures and heart failure. Such controlling actions can be presented by the perpetrator as being done in the person’s best interests, thereby disguising the abuse and the wider support needs of the victim.
There are no easy answers and, despite all the strengths of this Bill—and it really is an important and magnificent Bill—it is simply not possible for a Government to solve these problems through legislation alone. The interlinked issues of substance use addictions, mental health and domestic abuse require the ongoing application of expertise, research and careful monitoring, all feeding into strategies. That is why it is essential that substance use is included in the commissioner’s remit, that an expert in the area has a place on the advisory board and local partnership boards, and that guidance issued by the Secretary of State specifically addresses the link between alcohol and other substance use in domestic abuse.
Early intervention on alcohol abuse can break the abuse cycle early, and sometimes avoid complete family breakdown. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very grateful to have the opportunity to speak in support of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I declare an interest as a member of the Commission on Alcohol Harm, which she chaired so admirably, where I saw much of the evidence on the difficulties and consequences that arise from an abuse of alcohol.
The Minister is probably not surprised that I am speaking on this, as we have had many exchanges, over many years. I want to speak in general terms about the direction of policy. These amendments are about trying to give the commissioner the tools, support and all that she might need to explore all the different avenues with which she has to work to find solutions to the problems that she faces. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, it is not alcohol alone; it is one of several issues, but it is an important one.
Our feeling is that, when the Conservatives came to power—they have been in power for over a decade now—they started ambitiously, under David Cameron, in trying to address the problems arising from alcohol in the widest sense; here we are focusing particularly on abuse in the family. In many areas, regrettably, matters have deteriorated. There have been some improvements but, latterly, we have found more people being taken ill with alcohol and more people dying through obesity linked to alcohol, with Covid-19 and a range of other issues that have troubled us greatly.
I seek an assurance from the Minister that, notwithstanding all the campaigning that we have done and the many areas where we have failed to make progress, on this one the Government will take alcohol seriously as a factor closely linked to the problem. I say that having met the Minister last week to talk about perpetrators, when we were accompanied by the Minister who steered this through the Commons, who I did not feel was inclined to take alcohol as seriously as it ought to be. I am not saying this about the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. The view was, “Well, let’s not go down that avenue—most people drink responsibly, and we do not have problems with the overwhelming bulk of people drinking.” We are talking here of a problem that has deteriorated. There is more domestic abuse now and problems with alcohol in certain areas.
The devolved Administrations have done well and are ahead of us, but in England we have been slow to act. This opportunity, in the creation of the commissioner and the need to provide her with support, gives us a chance to get down into the detail. We have specialist advice, so she should get the best research and tools, so that the best possible outcomes flow forth, so that we see abuse reduce. It is inflicted mainly on women, but on men, children and older people too. I hope the Minister does not just gives us reassuring words but commits to giving the commissioner all the tools in this area, so that we start to see real change taking place.
My Lords, the Committee has every reason to be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the others who have tabled amendments in this group. We will all be grateful to the Government if they secure a positive response. It is not enough to thank the movers for the amendments, to acknowledge their importance and express concern, but not accept them. That would be an inadequate response. The symbiotic link between substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic abuse is so strong and all-pervading, as the noble Baroness has explained, that it needs to be specifically recognised in this legislation and met with positive statutory commitments to take every step that we can to ensure that the link is recognised and, as far as possible, addressed.
In May 2019, in a paper called the Dynamics of Domestic Abuse and Drug and Alcohol Dependency, published in the British Journal of Criminology, a group of distinguished academics drew together the literature on these issues in connection with the precursor of this Bill. They cited
“the findings of domestic homicide and serious case reviews … which reveal the pertinence of a ‘toxic trio’ of domestic abuse, mental health issues and drug and alcohol problems in cases where women or children are killed”,
“how substance use features in around half of intimate partners homicides in the United Kingdom”,
according to Home Office figures. They pointed out that the Government’s consultation paper
“Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse followed suit, highlighting the ‘complex needs’ of those living with ‘drug and alcohol misuse, offending, mental illness and poverty’”.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine cites studies showing that victims and abusers are 11 times more likely to be involved in domestic violence incidents on days of heavy substance abuse, and that domestic abuse against women who are with men who drink alcohol is up to four times more likely than in relationships with men who do not drink or take drugs. World Health Organization figures suggest that 50% of men accused of killing their spouses were drunk at the time.
Research led by Professor Seena Fazel, professor of forensic psychiatry at Oxford University, and published by the Public Library of Science, tracked 140,000 men who had been clinically diagnosed with a drink or drug problem and analysed how many had been later arrested for domestic abuse offences. For those dependent on alcohol, the figure was six times higher than the average; for those with a drug problem, the figure was seven times the average. The study also found an increased risk of partner violence among men with mental illnesses and behavioural disorders, and an interrelationship between mental disorders—particularly ADHD, personality disorders and clinical depression—and the use of drugs as coping strategies, as well as with the perpetration of domestic violence, hence the description of the “toxic trio”.
No one is suggesting that substance abuse is or ever can be an excuse for domestic abuse. However, the relationship between the two is undeniable. It does, of course, work both ways, on victims as well as abusers. The British Association of Social Workers, in its extremely well-presented guide for social workers, Substance Use and Domestic Abuse, cites research demonstrating that victims of physical or sexual domestic abuse have an increased likelihood of alcohol or drug abuse, but it also points out that the substance abuse may predate the abusive relationship. It says this about the position of victims:
“For some victims of abuse, during times of turmoil, substances may be the only constant in their lives that they can depend on. Perpetrators may also use substances to control their victims, in such ways as limiting victim’s access to substances, demanding sex for substances, or using substances as an apology after an abusive episode. Among victims of abuse, the relationship with their partner may be intertwined with their relationship with substances, making separation more complex.”
Most of this work is relatively recent. Society as a whole is hidebound by outdated attitudes and prejudices around domestic abuse, and these are only now being dissipated. They extend to the judiciary—a matter currently under consideration by the Court of Appeal in a case that started last week—and these questions came under close consideration by the Ministry of Justice in its paper last June Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases. The Bill represents a major step along that journey. I urge the Government to accept all these amendments to bring a sharp focus on what are undoubtedly complex and difficult inter-relationships, but ones which lie at the heart of tackling domestic abuse.
My Lords, I am glad to have put my name to these amendments and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for outlining the complex and troubling relationship between alcohol and domestic abuse. I also fully endorse my noble friend Lord Brooke’s wise remarks. He has been a tireless campaigner on this for more than 20 years in your Lordships’ House. I am sure that he, like the noble Lord, Lord Marks, is looking for a strong response from the Government, as I am.
The deep cuts made to addiction services since 2013-14 mean that the estimated 8.4 million high-risk drinkers and the hundreds of additional people with an opiate addiction needing help could miss out on life-saving treatment. No wonder the Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling for the Government to reverse the cuts and enable local authorities to invest £374 million into adult services so that they can cope with the increased need for treatment.
Professor Julia Sinclair, chair of the Addictions Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has pointed to Covid-19 showing
“just how stretched, under-resourced and ill-equipped addiction services are to treat the growing numbers of vulnerable people living with this complex illness.”
There are only five NHS in-patient units in the country and no resource anywhere in her region to admit people who are alcohol dependent with coexisting mental illness.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, has warned of the hidden alcohol harm crisis in this country. Before the pandemic, only one in five harmful and dependent drinkers got the help they needed; that proportion will now be significantly lower.
Before we even consider the link between alcohol and domestic abuse, we see that the services to help people suffering from substance and alcohol abuse have been severely limited and stretched. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, gave very graphic details indeed of a direct link between domestic abuse and substance abuse. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, survivors of domestic abuse can use alcohol or drugs themselves. Research has shown that women who have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence are more likely to use alcohol or drugs harmfully, compared to women who have not experienced extensive abuse.
Despite the close relationship between domestic abuse and substance use, very few survivors access specialist support. This is due, in part, to the lack of services that respond to the multiple needs of people experiencing both domestic abuse and substance use. Research has shown that the lack of integrated or co-ordinated services can see survivors prioritising one need over another—in other words, domestic abuse or substance abuse. Yet even accessing either one service can prove very difficult. People can find themselves turned away from refuges when accessing domestic abuse support due to their substance use. Research in London found that only about a quarter of the refuges reviewed always or often accept women who use alcohol or other drugs.
Likewise, survivors can struggle to find alcohol treatment services that meet their needs and adequately consider their trauma. Women who have experience of violent male partners may be reluctant to engage in mixed-gender services, but women-only provision for substance users is available in fewer than half of local authorities in England and Wales.
It is of course important and welcome that the Bill puts an obligation on local authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse. For the reasons that I and other noble Lords have just outlined, it is vital that this support includes substance use, addictions and mental health support where necessary. I too hope the Government will be able to come back with a strong response.
Debate on Amendment 21 adjourned.
House adjourned at 10.02 pm.