Report (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 21st and 28th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1: Definition of “domestic abuse”
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 3, 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 will also speak to the other amendments in this group in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Palmer. I am grateful for their cross-party support.
These amendments relate to a particular form of abuse which has long been of concern to me as a British citizen of Jewish faith, whereby a spouse—usually the husband—unreasonably prevents the dissolution of his Jewish religious marriage and denies his wife the freedom to move on with her life. We seek to ensure that such behaviour is recognised as a defined form of abuse under this Bill, so that the wife can receive the support and help provided for victims.
I should stress that the majority of Jewish divorces proceed in accordance with religious laws, especially once the civil divorce settlement is agreed, but there are instances in which a husband deliberately refuses. Sometimes this is to extort money from the wife or her family; sometimes it is to wield power and control out of bitterness or spite; sometimes it is out of a vengeful desire to inflict long-term suffering on the ex-wife. The objective here is to support the victim, who is being treated as a chattel rather than as a person and denied her basic rights. There are cases where a woman has been civilly divorced from her husband for more than 20 years, yet the husband has consistently refused to engage with the religious authorities and to grant her a get. She is unable to remarry or to have further children. She is a prisoner in the marriage.
There is no intention here to undermine the role of the Jewish courts, which govern Jewish religious laws and which require the husband to voluntarily sign an official Jewish bill of divorce document, called a get. This can only be initiated by the husband in order to dissolve their Jewish marriage.
There is an entire legal framework governing all aspects of Jewish life, dating back to Biblical times. Although the present-day Jewish courts, known as batte din, and the judges, or dayanim, have been seeking ways to facilitate a process that can free the woman by means of persuasion or negotiation, this process is clearly open to abuse. The wife remains chained in the marriage and, if she wishes to stand by her faith, she cannot date or remarry another man unless she has been given the get. If she were to do so, any children would be considered illegitimate and would not be fully accepted under Jewish religious law.
We hope that these changes will assist rabbinic courts, so that fewer men will play these kinds of cruel games. Sadly, these have been used by men as leverage to control their ex-wives or demand a ransom for their freedom. We recognise that civil divorce is not a substitute for a get, without which, no matter how long the couple have been separated, they are still not considered religiously divorced. This legislation hopes to provide—and these amendments seek to achieve—a wake-up call for Jewish husbands, so that they recognise that it is socially unacceptable to refuse to religiously divorce their wives. Extortionate demands are not acceptable. It should be done in a timely way. It should be as inappropriate in this day and age for a Jewish man to refuse his wife a get as it is for a man to inappropriately fondle a woman or make lewd comments about her looks. We are seeking mindset change.
I hugely regret that this remains an issue for the rabbinic authorities, who have been unable sufficiently to overcome the problem that this causes for women. I understand and fully respect that these are difficult points of Torah, Talmudic and Mishnaic law, which I do not claim to have detailed legal knowledge of. I bow to the legislators in this country on Jewish matters, but I believe that we have a duty to ensure that these Jewish women are protected. They are entitled to the same protections as other victims of abuse.
Fantastic charities such as Jewish Women’s Aid and GETToutUK have been helpful, and many legal and other experts have pleaded for change. I hope that these amendments will further encourage recalcitrant husbands to free their former wives and that society will recognise their victimhood. Such behaviour is not only unreasonable and abusive; it is immoral. These amendments seek to establish that decent behaviour cannot encompass this type of abuse. Legislation cannot force a man to give a get. The religious courts want men voluntarily to attend and grant it. We are sensitive to concerns that a coerced get may be considered invalid, leaving the wife permanently held hostage in the unwanted marriage. We hope that this mindset change in the national community will be forthcoming as we move forward with this legislation.
The later amendments in this group, Amendments 74, 79 and 80, are designed to clarify that the Serious Crime Act 2015 definition of controlling or coercive behaviour covers a situation where a Jewish couple is separated or divorced under secular law and no longer cohabiting, but the religious marriage is not yet dissolved and the husband persistently refuses to give a get. The amendments seek to confirm the previous belief, not yet tested in court, that such a husband could be prosecuted for the crime of controlling or coercive behaviour and face criminal sanctions, even if the couple are no longer living together. However, I am pleased to tell the House that I will not need to move these amendments as Amendment 45 in a later group, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, has the support of the Minister and of my noble friends Lady Bertin and Lady Sanderson. That amendment would explicitly establish that post-separation abuse is covered by the 2015 Act, and that an unreasonable get refusal would potentially be a serious crime.
Since this issue was raised in Committee, I have been hugely grateful to my noble friends the Ministers who have continued to engage with us. I thank them and their departmental officials, and also the domestic abuse commissioner and her team, who have been so supportive and understanding of this situation. Indeed, perhaps I may put on record how grateful I am to be living in a country where issues of this nature, which affect a particular religion, can be engaged with so seriously and sensitively by our Government, the Civil Service and other officials.
The domestic abuse commissioner has stated that she welcomes these proposed amendments to the Bill and that she recognises that this would be a form of coercive behaviour on the grounds of psychological or economic abuse or coercion. She has requested and recommended that this issue be included in statutory guidance under the heading of “wider spiritual abuse”.
Since this issue was raised in Committee, we have listened carefully to the debate and we would like to thank again the domestic abuse commissioner and the Ministers. Although I stressed clearly that these amendments are designed to relate solely to Jewish religious divorces, with no intention to impact on any other religious groups, we understand that there were concerns of a read-across to other religions.
Having listened carefully to the debate in Committee, I have also been grateful for ministerial assurances that unreasonable and persistent refusal to give a wife a get is already covered by the broad definitions of abuse in the Bill, and I have received assurances that this will be explicitly mentioned in the statutory guidance. I would be grateful if my noble friend would confirm this and, on that basis, I would therefore accept that this issue need not be in the Bill and I do not intend to press the amendment to a vote. I beg to move Amendment 1.
My Lords, I have signed all the amendments in this group, which have been signed by noble Lords from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the Cross Benches—not very usual. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said so very clearly, all these amendments relate to a spouse—usually the husband—unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage.
My thanks go to Government Ministers for engaging with us and for seeking a UK legal solution to this medieval enigma. I would have preferred for these amendments, clear as they are, to be in the Bill. However, I have to accept, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for the moment, that the problem lies with current interpretations of the rules of Jewish marriage, and not with a parliamentary solution. There is no doubt that chained women and their children, after a civil divorce, are being unreasonably discriminated against for life. I accept that the Government have been sympathetic and have sought by practical means of guidance issued to help those affected, such as with Amendment 45, which I understand will be supported by the Government.
I am grateful for this assistance, but it is not enough. Even if we do not vote on these amendments today, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, I will continue to call for a more sympathetic approach from the Beth Din religious authorities. They rely on the Catch-22 absurdity that a Jewish divorce is not recognised if the recalcitrant husband is seen to be “coerced” into giving a get, resulting in the divorce not being recognised in Jewish law. Thus the agunah, or chained woman, is prohibited from having intimate relations with a man other than her husband and cannot remarry in an orthodox ceremony. In a really unacceptable denial of rights, the children will have severe restrictions placed upon them. Children should not suffer in this way, whatever the reason. This is unacceptable in 2021.
However, these same restrictions on coercion do not stop coercion of the wife being blackmailed, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, into giving a get, be it by payment of money, loss of family home or access to the children of the marriage. All the amendments in this group seek to provide a remedy and I welcome the moves in the Bill and in the guidance. However, what we do not want is to worsen the situation by creating the very perceived coercion which these despicable men rely on.
My Lords, I first came across the problem with which Amendment 1 deals when I was promoting the divorce Act in 1996 and I was assisted in great measure by my late friend Lord Jakobovits, who was then the Chief Rabbi.
The problem arises, as has been explained, for a person of the Jewish faith who is married and then decides to seek divorce. If she is female, she may get a decree of divorce in the English courts, but the Jewish law to which she feels bound requires that she cannot be divorced under that law without the agreement of her husband. Some husbands who have been divorced by the English courts decline to agree that the wife should be allowed to divorce under the Jewish law which they have both agreed to follow. In that situation, the husband is able to hold the wife into the marriage which she has made clear she wishes to leave.
The exercise of power by the husband is a controlling or coercive power within the meaning of Clause 1(3) of the Bill. Since they are both over the age of 16 and have been personally connected within the meaning of Clause 2(1)(a) of the Bill, it is clear that the husband is showing what under the Bill is described—and this will shortly become law—as domestic abuse towards the wife and therefore is subject to the remedies for her provided in the Bill. No distinct amendment is required in order to bring the wife into the situation where she can receive the help that the Bill will provide when it becomes an Act.
I agree that there is a problem which cannot be solved by us about a get having to be voluntary. The use of one of the remedies may be easier than another in that situation, but one thing I am sure of is that it does not do any good to alter the provisions in Clause 1 of the Bill by these amendments, at least in respect of everything except the Serious Crime Act—but I do not think it requires anything to be done in that place, either. Adding things such as “reasonable” and “unreasonable” and so on is a mistake and the proper thing to do is to leave Clause 1 as it is, because it undoubtedly carries with it the implication that the refusal of a get is domestic abuse.
My Lords, the Ministers involved have done a great service by listening to the Members who have put forward these amendments. I am pleased to support all the amendments in this group, to which I have put my name.
By accepting the need to stigmatise husbands who behave unreasonably in not giving a get, the Government are sending a signal to spiteful men and to fossilised religious authorities that compassion and secular standards have to prevail. I support the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, in all that he has said about this. The ability to refuse a religious divorce provides abusive husbands with power to control and to subvert conditions relating to the divorce, by, for example, demanding that the divorce settlement be repaid. The refusal can have a grievous effect on a woman’s entire life. She may be prevented from remarrying while still of childbearing age and there is concern for the status of children that she may have in future.
I am not defending the religious law underlying this, and it is not confined to Judaism. Nevertheless, it is accepted by some women here, and by millions around the world, but it is time for the secular law principles to prevail, all the more so since from this autumn, we will have no-fault divorce, a system which does not allow the unwilling spouse to defend a divorce at all—it must be accepted. The guidance, which I hope will contain these provisions, is a good example of how British law manages to encompass a diversity of views within its system. A man who refuses a get unreasonably in the future may even be found guilty of a criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, under the Serious Crime Act 2015, because this Bill clarifies that domestic abuse provisions apply to former couples, even after separation. Nevertheless, this provision would work more effectively as a threat than an actual imprisonment, because the get must be granted by the husband without direct coercion. The clarification in the statutory guidance which we hope for will mean that this is a good day for women and a step closer to equality in religious law.
My Lords, I speak personally in this debate. It is a privilege and a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, because I remember 1996. I was in the Chamber as a newly appointed Peer and remember very well Lord Jakobovits, who was quite a close friend.
I come from an orthodox Jewish family and I am an orthodox Jew. My grandfather was an orthodox rabbi. He taught me Hebrew and Aramaic from the age of six or seven, and his wife, my maternal grandmother, was very concerned about the problem of get. She used to try persuading the rabbinical authorities, including my grandfather, who was not a dayan—a judge—of the rightness of the cause. She remained, throughout her life, from the First World War onwards, an activist on this. My grandfather supported her with a smile, but he recognised that the Jewish courts were rather reluctant to move forward.
My mother travelled around the world trying to persuade the rabbis of the problem faced by the agunah. She spoke to American, Israeli and Australian rabbis—for example, the Chief Rabbi of Israel—and those in parts of Europe. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who will be speaking in this debate, can testify to how frightening my mother was. Unquestionably, many strictly orthodox rabbis appeared to be persuaded. She was always greeted with polite acquiescence, but nothing has happened, and one of the problems is that there are many different courts, so-called batte din, around the world. There is more than one in this country and they have been reluctant to work collectively in any way.
Another reason for being personally interested in this debate is that this is the week of my 48th wedding anniversary. My wife is not listening to what I am saying about divorce, by the way. Judaism differs from many other faiths because religious law is based on Talmud, which dates back to the Mishnah from the second century and the fifth century. It is a huge and remarkable compilation of discussions by the rabbis, who, of course, disagree with each other. Jews always disagree, and the Talmud is one of the few books of law of any kind which is almost entirely a matter of questions. One rabbi asks a question and another group of rabbis answers with a question. That is how the Talmud has built up. It has left Judaism almost unique in its religious format. It is not pyramidal—there is no one central authority. There is no supreme court in Judaism. I suspect that a supreme court would be in the world to come, not in this world. That has been a major problem for a few issues, particularly this issue of the chained woman.
It is embarrassing for someone such as myself to try persuading an English Parliament, to which I am absolutely committed, to help with Jewish law. I would also say that these instances of irreligious men hiding behind their religious cloak is much rarer than one might think, but none the less, there is this very important case for a few people where the future happiness of a woman, her freedom and, to some extent, the possibility of her having children is so important to her and to the community. It would at least prevent this shocking instance, so I am delighted that the Government are minded in some way to help us. I am very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, feels that the amendment to follow, to which I will listen with great care, will help to sort this matter out. I congratulate her on bringing forward this important matter, which affects a number of Jewish families.
My Lords, it is a privilege to speak to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. I am not Jewish, but as a woman of faith I appreciate the complexities detailed in the amendments. I am grateful to all organisations which have kept us fully briefed throughout the passage of this Bill. I salute them today, for many have spent a lifetime advocating for victims and survivors. As we approach the end, I have drawn on their experience, sentiments, and many of their expressions and words, to speak today, and I stand in support of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and other noble Lords who have spoken.
Violence and abuse often beget another generation of violence, not in all families, but some are so scathed by the pain, humiliation and loss of hope, respect and self-esteem, and mental and physical well-being, that this impacts all aspects of their lives. Women have achieved significant positions in society and throughout the globe, yet perpetrators— mostly men—have, as has been said, continued to feel entitlement to an inalienable right to batter and abuse their wives and partners, sometimes using religious references. Throughout the years, many in families and communities and, shockingly, lawmakers and law enforcers, have often been bystanders, designating the degradation of women as “domestic”. Women have tolerated millennia of violence and persecution sanctioned by family, society, and worst of all, the state, and sometimes even religion. This Bill is our pledge that we will uphold a society which liberates victims and survivors to live free of the fear of violence and abuse and, more importantly, institutionalise justice, freedom and liberty from aggressors and their assailants.
Laws, while a cornerstone, will not on their own aid the victims, the survivors, and their families to rebuild their lives. They will continue to require proper and adequate financial assistance and structural support to protect them until they are strong enough in transit from victim to survivor. Therefore, at the outset it is crucial that the gendered context of abuse is recognised on the face of the Bill. We live in an unequal world, where women are often at the margin or society, no matter what advances we have made in some aspects of our society. All victims of domestic abuse need support, but how we respond to men and women will inevitably be different, as has been stated, and therefore their experiences and needs require appropriate responses. To deny a gendered approach is to persist in repudiating the experiences of the vast majority of victims and survivors of violence and abuse, who are women in our country and throughout all parts of our world.
The Istanbul convention also requires states to take a gendered approach, taking on board women’s faiths when implementing laws and policies on domestic abuse. This Bill cannot deny the reality, thus ignoring well-established evidence that women escaping and recovering from violence and abuse will require women-only services.
May I say that I also wanted to speak to the group beginning with Amendment 2, but I mistakenly was unable to put my name down? But it was an honour to be present in the Chamber to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, as she powerfully addressed the Chamber and courageously stated her personal experience. I recognise the point that she has argued, and accept that there are certainly many complexities which become part of the continuous battle over children in separation and divorce. Regrettably, I am not in support of her clause. I worked with women’s NGOs and refuges—
Later in this Bill, we will be discussing the role of Cafcass and the family court in instructing contact with children, which calibrates comprehensive briefing, and must always ensure that the protection and well-being of children are at the forefront of any discussions. Although I recognise the important and useful role of Cafcass and the family court system, I suggest it is far from resilient in its effectiveness and application, due to insufficient understanding of the impact of violence and abuse.
I wish to address the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and her call for get refusal to be recognised as a form of domestic abuse within the statutory definition to ensure that Jewish women are protected and can access a DAPO on the grounds that a get is being withheld by an abuser.
I appreciate that this amendment specifically addresses get. I am in awe of the leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, in getting us to this point. If husbands who refuse wives religious divorce are likely to be prosecuted, it would be a godsend, not just for Jewish women, as it would give hope to other women of faith, including Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus—many of whom often discover, when there is a violent incident or separation, that their religious ceremonies are not recognised by the laws of our country. This blights the lives of countless women and families who have no recourse to the laws. The Register Our Marriage campaign and other leading women’s organisations welcome these proposed changes on get, as do I. It raises hope for others seeking state recognition for their plight in relation to religious ceremonies.
My Lords, I take part briefly in this debate because I was moved by what my noble friend Lady Altmann said in Committee. I go by one abiding conviction: we are all equal under the law and every subject of Her Majesty the Queen deserves the same consideration, the same protection and the same advancement as any other. As a great admirer of the Jewish community and what it has contributed to our national life over many centuries, I believe that what my noble friend is arguing for today is something that we should all recognise as a legitimate request. I was delighted to hear her comments that she believes that this will be covered, even though her own amendment will not be pressed to a Division.
I have tried to help a little in the work that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has done for Muslim women in the context of sharia law. Again, it is important that everyone in this country—every woman—has the same benefits as every other. The rule of law is what makes this a civilised country.
I sincerely hope that we will go forward from Report to see this important landmark Bill on the statute book very soon, and that it will indeed give true and equal protection to all those who suffer or who are in fear of domestic abuse. I am glad to support this amendment.
My Lords, I speak in support of this group of amendments, which I have signed. I associate myself with the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and my colleagues. I also thank the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the officials of the domestic abuse commissioner for their engagements on these amendments.
There is indeed progress. As my noble friends have said, there are some clear indications for some modest but significant improvements as outlined. Crucially, I hope we will hear some reassurance, building on what was said in Committee, that statutory guidance, as provided for in Clause 73, will take into account the measures proposed in the amendments.
It is also important to note that there is a host of additional elements throughout this Bill which support the plight of victims and will provide new opportunities for assistance and help, including DAPOs, the role of the domestic abuse commissioner and many others. There is no doubt that more will be done over time. At its very heart, this is a form of gender discrimination that we really cannot accept.
The Government have made a number of arguments as to why they could not go further or place these matters on the face of the Bill. Indeed, there is a reasonable point that the Government have not had enough time to tease through all the different implications for all faiths on this matter. There is a less persuasive point about drafting preferences.
There are two arguments, however, that are surely utterly wrong and incompatible with the underlying intentions behind this Bill: namely, that this is only domestic abuse in certain circumstances and that English law alone cannot solve this matter. A plainly gender-specific arrangement which places women where they have less rights and power in courts, which are exclusively run by the decisions of men, is wrong. This is not a situation we should accept, nor is it an arrangement we should settle for, even under any calculation of what religious freedoms should be accorded to faith communities in our country.
In Holland, the courts have been making rulings which have included fines and even imprisonment of husbands unwilling to deliver gets, with all the support of the rabbinate and the religious courts. In fact, under Dutch jurisprudence since 2002, which was strengthened in specific legislation just a couple of years ago—and which has been accessed by Jewish women across Europe, including, previously, some from the UK who, unfortunately, can no longer access it now—the secular courts are able to unchain Jewish women in these circumstances. The distinguished Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the head of the conference of European orthodox rabbis, supports this measure, as does rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, the former chief rabbi of Amsterdam, who now works in the orthodox courts in New York to bring reform and change. They support the Dutch judiciary’s proactive approach and recognise that, over 2,000 years, the role of the religious courts and the nature of Jewish communities in modern times is different. In response to the opposition of those who resist any notion that secular values or laws should ever interfere in how the Jewish law operates in liberal democracies. Rabbi Ralbag has powerfully said:
“Am I concerned that this is creating a precedent for interference? In some places, yes, I am. But I and every rabbi need to measure this against the pain and suffering that is being visited on Jewish women right now. And right now, this is what we can do to help”.
Regrettably, we are a long way from that here in the UK, but this is something that I think should inspire us that more can and must be done through this Bill—and indeed after it. I have been truly shocked and humbled over the issues presented by these amendments. I have been contacted by tens of women in this situation since I first spoke out. I have heard the most traumatic stories, including with people I knew, and in some cases people I have socialised with. How true it is that you never know what is going on, even with people you think you know well. The private torments, appalling behaviour, abuse and control—it has been utterly shocking. How important it is that there are excellent organisations such as the Jewish Women’s Aid and GETTout UK. I have been shocked at how some members of the legal profession have been providing the use of the get as a bargaining chip to ensure that women cannot receive what the law is clear and firm they are fully entitled to.
These issues go much deeper than the granting of the get and involve many cases that do not even touch the sides of the religious courts, where they are prepared to intervene. So while I am grateful to the Government for the progress that I hope the Minister will confirm during his speech, we cannot be satisfied with where we are. There is a huge duty on leaders in the Jewish community to face up to this dark side. While thus far it does not do what the Dutch have done, I hope the Bill will make them think and come round to proposing more legislative interventions themselves. I hope Jewish women will find comfort in the support that the Bill will give them in their struggles ahead, and for that we must be grateful.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to listen to and follow my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn and the other sponsors of these amendments.
I wish to make two brief points. The first is that whenever there is an unequivocal imbalance in power relations, that affects behaviour. The behaviour relayed to me in the context of these amendments particularly concerns women who remain in abusive relationships precisely because, in any definition of “negotiation”, the odds of getting out are stacked against them. One cannot go fairly into a separation negotiation if the other side has additional cards that are greater than the ones you possess. That imbalance affects ongoing behaviour; it will be affecting people’s behaviour now, as my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn rightly pointed out, in cases where perhaps no one will know anything at all other than the woman directly affected. There is a responsibility on the Government to listen acutely to the expertise being brought.
That brings me to my second point—and it is an apposite time to be making it in the context of Lord Speaker elections and people thinking about the size of the House—about the diversity of this place. There is no purpose in having an unelected Second Chamber if it does not represent the diversity of the communities out there. With these amendments and the Government’s arguments against them, we see a juxtaposition of the best and the not so good. Here we see a community effectively represented, by Members from across the range of the political spectrum knowledgably putting forward their expertise to the Government and to the House. But if we are to have a purpose here and carry out the precise role that an unelected Chamber needs to, we need to be far more inclusive of all communities across the country. The amendments, as clearly as any that I have ever seen, absolutely demonstrate the strengths of this House but also, in a sense—and I anticipate that this will be the Government’s response—part of its ongoing weaknesses, in that we are not inclusive enough of all communities.
I congratulate those who have brought forward their expertise from their community for the rest of us. With such cross-party wisdom, it would be foolish of us to ignore that expertise.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mann, who, as a non-Jew, has done, and continues to do, so much in the fight against anti-Semitism.
The well-informed debate in Committee was a good one and today’s debate has been just as important and impressive. I am delighted to confirm the assertions by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, about his mother, the late Ruth Winston-Fox; she was a force to be reckoned with but also a wonderfully warm, creative and successful campaigner. She clearly produced quite an impressive son, too.
The Bill, which is welcomed across the House and beyond, is about helping as many people who need it as possible. That is why I support my noble friend Lady Altmann’s amendments; as always, she made the case strongly and eloquently. I too am grateful to the Government, specifically on the Front Bench, my noble friends Lady Williams and Lord Wolfson. There can be no doubt in my mind that withholding a get is abusive behaviour. I also pay tribute to the inspiring work of Jewish Women’s Aid.
While it remains true that I am a member of the United Synagogue and part of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, I am qualified to speak for no one. However, I spoke to a close family member who happens to be going through a divorce and, as she said, if via this Bill only one woman, one agunah, were spared the indignity, the abuse, the embarrassment and the hurt and were enabled to rebuild her life then that would be a good result. How much more important it is if, by passing these focused and narrow amendments, we can help many more than just one agunah. My noble friend Lord Wolfson understands, he has empathy and he has the knowledge to help. I urge him to help those who need it.
My Lords, I speak to show support from these Benches for the amendments. They relate to Jewish law but there are many women who, for many reasons, are effectively prevented from leaving a failed marriage because their spouse unreasonably decides to prevent them moving on with their lives. Just one example might be where a wife is subject to abuse but the husband threatens to cut her off without a penny if she leaves the relationship. Whether or not the threat could be carried out is not the point if the threat is believed. In the case of the amendments, the husband has to consent to the divorce in Jewish law, and so the threat is real.
It is a privilege to be able to speak on this Bill on International Women’s Day. Any woman should be free to leave any relationship if she so chooses, and that includes relationships covered by these amendments. In 2021 there should be no chained women.
My Lords, Labour is happy to support this group of amendments but recognises the realities of abuse that different communities face. We must ensure that what is in the Bill works in practice for victims of all backgrounds in the UK.
The technical aspects of the amendments have been described powerfully and in detail by other noble Lords. When I came to review them in preparation for today, I was struck by the complexity of the situation surrounding victims caught in these particular circumstances due to religious faith, and the clarity with which these amendments have been written in order to ameliorate the effects and consequences of that faith while unlocking the rights of the woman in that situation and disallowing perpetrators from using the get negotiations as an abusive bargaining chip.
I pay tribute to the noble Lords who have brought forward these amendments for the experienced and knowledgeable way in which they have highlighted this problem, and I am glad of the support across all areas of the House for the amendments, on the grounds of domestic abuse by way of controlling and coercive behaviour. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, spoke of in her detailed opening speech, this is a defined form of abuse where the victim is treated as chattel. I was interested to hear my noble friend Lord Winston’s insights into the uniqueness of Judaism in not having one central authority, as well as my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn’s powerful and cogent arguments about what must be done, and the insight that he showed in his comment about not knowing what is actually going on with people who you think you know.
Inclusion in the Bill provides the opportunity to ensure that its provisions and protections are applicable to all. It specifically recognises the plight of these women by removing the shadow of abuse and control, restoring their right to exercise their faith through their ability to remarry and have children within their faith. The recognition would also offer these women other protections under the Act, once it is passed, if they are 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 retain control of the process as the victims, rather than as a witness in a prosecution, having criminal sanctions as a civil party. It also clarifies that unreasonably preventing the obtaining of a get can include the imposition of unfair conditions, calibrated by reference to being substantially less favourable terms than the civil courts have ordered.
In conclusion, on International Women’s Day, this group highlights what so many noble Lords have said. The Bill needs to work for all victims and to do that it needs to grapple with the reality of how domestic abuse is experienced, in all the different ways that it is, by all of our communities across the UK—whatever their faith or ethnicity—by those living with it and trying to escape it.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Altmann for tabling these amendments. As a number of speakers have said, it is particularly apt that we are debating this on International Women’s Day. The quality of speeches in this debate is a testament to the strength of feeling across the House. Indeed, the standard of speeches has set a very high bar for the rest of Report.
I hope the House will forgive me if I depart from my prepared text to pick up two comments by my noble friend Lord Cormack. He first said that all were equal under the law. I respectfully agree entirely. Towards the end of his short but powerful contribution, he also said, if I took it down correctly, “The rule of law is what makes this a civilised country.” Again, I respectfully agree, and those two propositions guide not only the work of my department but my approach to this matter.
Amendments 1 and 3 would add a sixth limb to the list of behaviours in Clause 1(3) which count as abusive; namely, the unreasonable refusal to agree to the granting of a religious bill of divorce, or get, which is necessary to dissolve a Jewish religious marriage. The threat of such a refusal would also be caught by the amendment. It is undeniable that women who are refused a get by their husbands suffer long-lasting and significant consequences. A woman who has not received a get is regarded in the eyes of Jewish religious law as still married. She is therefore unable to remarry, but that is not the only disability which she suffers. Perhaps more importantly, if she does not remarry but has further children with another Jewish partner, those children will be severely restricted as a matter of Jewish law as to whom they are later able to marry.
The term applied in Jewish law to a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get, being an “agunah” or “chained”, is thus apt and tragic. I know that Jewish religious authorities are concerned about the problem but have not, so far, found a solution to it within Jewish religious law. That is a source of regret to many, but not something which English law alone can solve. While I accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, put it, that this issue goes back to medieval times and may go back further—it is certainly of long standing—it is a matter which ultimately, so far as Jewish law is concerned, the Jewish religious authorities themselves have to deal with. If the undoubted abilities of the mother of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, were insufficient to resolve this problem—I pass on congratulations from the Front Bench to him on his wedding anniversary—and she did not succeed with all her talents, one wonders where the solution will come from.
While English law cannot solve this problem, there is something which English law can and should deal with. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, reminded the House, this is not the first time English law has engaged itself in this area. He reminded the House of the significant work done by the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, of blessed memory, which led up to the legislation at the start of this century. English law can recognise that the refusal to grant a religious dissolution is all too often about the exertion of control by one spouse over the other—almost invariably, in the context of a get, by the husband over the wife—and, as such, may be considered a form of domestic abuse in certain circumstances
However, as my noble friend Lady Williams outlined in her response in Committee, we consider that this would sit better in the statutory guidance on domestic abuse provided for in Clause 73, rather than in the Bill. Again, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, identified, that is because the list of abusive behaviours included in the definition is purposefully drafted to be high level. That definition is therefore to be applied by the courts and other agencies on a case-by-case, fact-specific basis. Including specific circumstances in the Bill, such as a refusal to grant a get, may lead to calls for inclusion of other examples which would have two adverse consequences. First, as a matter of drafting, it would make the definition unwieldy. Secondly, we do not want to give the impression by including specific examples that there is a hierarchy of abuse. We are concerned to capture and prevent all forms of domestic abuse.
Before I provide further reassurance on the matter of statutory guidance, which a number of noble Lords have referred to, it would make sense to respond to Amendment 79 first. That amendment seeks to ensure that both the guidance I have just referred to and the statutory guidance issued under Section 77 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 include the unreasonable refusal to grant a get within their discussion of controlling or coercive behaviour. While we would not want to prescribe in statute what statutory guidance must contain, the House will have heard my own and my noble friend Lady Williams’ previous commitments during Committee and subsequent discussions to address this issue in the statutory guidance provided for in Clause 73.
I am pleased to have met with my noble friend Lady Altmann, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Palmer, recently to discuss this matter and share our progress on including the issue within the statutory guidance. Home Office officials have been working closely with my noble friend Lady Altmann, with Jewish Women’s Aid and others to shape the reference to this issue in the statutory guidance. I was particularly pleased to hear my noble friend refer to the work done by my department’s officials in this regard as well.
I am pleased that we have now included specific reference to refusal to grant a get within the draft guidance. We have also included a specific case study on get refusal, provided by Jewish Women’s Aid—to whom I pay tribute, as my noble friend Lord Polak did—to bring the issue to life for those reading that guidance. Let me say this clearly and unambiguously: there are, and no doubt will be, cases in which the refusal to give a get may be considered a form of domestic abuse. As my noble friend Lady Deech reminded the House, that is especially the case if refusal to grant a get is used as a method to undermine a financial settlement imposed by the civil court. As the noble Lord, Lord Mann, reminded the House, the issue here is that that power affects all the negotiations which surround the issue of separation.
Turning back to the statutory guidance, we have also added a new section on spiritual abuse, a particular form of abuse where perpetrators use the victim’s faith or other belief system to control them. We have worked closely in this regard with the Faith and Violence Against Women and Girls Coalition, drawing on its expertise. The new section is now comprehensive and takes up a few pages within the guidance.
I respectfully agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, that this applies to all faiths. Spiritual abuse is not faith specific, and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that the Government’s approach is to be absolutely inclusive of all communities within our country. We will continue to work closely with the experts as we develop the guidance, and we will be publishing an updated version of the draft guidance shortly after Royal Assent for a formal consultation, where there will be a further opportunity for interested parties to contribute. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, because what we are dealing with here are ultimately issues of power and control, I hope that that will enhance the nature and quality of the consultation.
I turn now to Amendment 74, which seeks to ensure that partners in a Jewish religious marriage which has not been dissolved can be considered within the definition of “intimate personal relationship” within the Serious Crime Act 2015, whether or not they continue to be married under civil law or live together. My noble friends will have seen that we intend to support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, which would remove the “living together” requirement contained within the controlling or coercive behaviour offence. Therefore, Amendment 74 is now unnecessary.
I turn finally to Amendment 80, which seeks to ensure that the unreasonable refusal to dissolve a religious marriage be regarded as a significant factor in the consideration of whether a person has suffered domestic abuse, 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. My remarks just now about what is appropriate to include on the face of the Bill, and what to include in guidance, apply equally to the first limb of this amendment, on the determination of domestic abuse. On the second limb of the amendment, which refers to domestic abuse protection orders, it would not be appropriate for the Government to direct the judiciary as to what it must consider when deciding whether to grant such an order. That is a matter for the courts. The amendment is, in any event, unnecessary. The conditions which must be satisfied before a court can make a DAPO will already enable a court to make such an order if the behaviour amounts to abusive behaviour under Clause 1(3). On the final limb, relating to local authorities, we are not otherwise specifying what local authorities must take into account when drawing up their strategies, which will relate to general provision in the relevant local authority area. A specific reference is therefore unnecessary, but again I reassure my noble friend that this issue will be considered within the statutory guidance to which those local authorities will refer.
The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, referred to the approach in Holland, and said that the Jewish religious authorities ought to look at the approach there. It is not for the Government to identify what might or might not be an appropriate solution to this problem from the point of view of Jewish religious law. It is fair to say, as the noble Lord mentioned, that there are different answers or proposed answers to a very long-standing question. It is undeniable, as again he said, that there are causes which are traumatic indeed. The intent of this amendment has broad support across the House. We have heard a number of very powerful speeches supporting the proposals, and not only do the Liberal Democrat Benches support them but the Opposition do as well. I was a little worried for a moment about whether that support would be forthcoming, but it was. The Government are also in sympathy with the underlying aims of these amendments, and I was very pleased to hear from my noble friend that, in light of our discussions and the progress made on the statutory guidance, and the very clear—and I hope unambiguous—statements made from the Dispatch Box today, she will be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his remarks, and am truly humbled by the widespread support across the House for the sentiments and intent of these amendments. Every noble Lord who spoke supported this group of amendments. I hope that, on International Women’s Day, this will help promote a mindset change among Jewish men, or men of any faith, that the position of power they may find themselves in should not be exercised against the interests of their wives. I accept that the broad definitions do cover get refusal, and I appreciate my noble friend’s unambiguous statements to that effect. On the basis of the assurances that I have most gratefully received, I will not be moving my Amendments 3, 74, 79 and 80, and I thank my noble friend and the department for all their engagement. I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment 1.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 1, page 2, line 12, at end insert “, such as a parent’s behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent.”
My Lords, I rise to speak to the amendment tabled in my name and kindly supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, which I very much hope the Government will consider positively.
The reason I was sent to this House was my 19 years of work on family and children’s issues. Every day for nearly two decades I stepped through the wreckage of relationships destroyed by one parent poisoning the mind of a child against the other parent. Sometimes the abuser was a man, sometimes a woman. The gender was irrelevant. The horrific irony is that all parties—the abuser, the abused and the child—end up victims in their different ways, with lives wrecked and psychological damage beyond measure. For some the only way out is suicide. The Government say that there is no need to include an amendment as this form of abuse is already covered by implication in the Bill. But why should it be covered by implication and not explicitly?
In Clause 1(4) there is already detailed reference to “economic abuse”, by which one partner or spouse seeks to use money to coerce and control the other. How can economic abuse merit mention when the weaponising of children for the purpose of coercion and control by one parent over the other goes unmentioned? No one has put it better than the distinguished family court judge, His Honour Judge Stephen Wildblood QC, who said
“The problem with Parental Alienation is that it’s not about the child at all. It is about the adults … It’s using children as an instrument of that parent’s skewed emotions.”
In my book, there are few forms of domestic abuse more callous and damaging than that. Are we to draw the conclusion that money matters more than the lives and souls of the victims of domestic abuse—men, women and children? That surely cannot be the case.
This has nothing to do with creating a hierarchy of behaviours, as the Government fear. It is to ensure that through an Act of Parliament the issue of children as the victims of domestic abuse is not buried under a barrage of gender politics and misinformation. This debate needs to be broadened, not narrowed. There is a crying need for the justice system to be better equipped to distinguish between false and authentic accusations of alienation: between children who for good reason do not want to see one parent, and children who have been indoctrinated to say so. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, put it in our previous debate:
“A little more time might be spent teaching magistrates, district judges and circuit judges a little more about it”.—[Official Report, 25/1/21; col. 1403]
“It”, of course, is parental alienation.
There is the rub: the dreaded words “parental alienation”. I regret to say that rational debate around this term has been made well-nigh impossible by the controversy and emotion that it attracts. That is why my amendment, instead of using the term, in effect describes what my supporters and I mean by it—that is,
“a parent’s behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent.”
Seen in that light, I cannot believe that any reasonable person can object to our amendment.
Of course I have every sympathy for women who fear that men will use parental alienation as a defence against well-founded claims of abuse. The last thing that I want to do is to make life easier for an abusive and dishonest man—to the contrary: I believe that our amendment, far from disarming women victims, will strengthen their defences. But it is plain wrong to assert that so-called parental alienation is a stratagem used exclusively by men against women. For example, Judge Wildblood was reported as saying in 2019 in an alienation case that the children would suffer “significant and long-term” emotional damage, adding that
“the cause of that harm lies squarely with this mother”.
Alienation exists; to deny it would be to deny that the earth is round. More to the point, noble Lords have all seen the petition signed within a matter of weeks by over 1,400 fathers, mothers and grandparents, begging the Government to hear their voices and to include in the Bill a reference to this vile form of abuse. Every day I receive emails asking for that. If that is not persuasive enough, I have an abundance of proof in hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers and scholarly articles, to be found in the written evidence that I have circulated. This body of work comprehensively refutes the so-called expert advice submitted to the Ministry of Justice—advice that says on the one hand that there is no such thing as parental alienation and on the other that it benefits men only.
This is a Bill that, if it becomes law, will deeply determine the well-being and mental health of families across the land for years to come. It is therefore vital that we have complete clarity about its intent and reach. Can my noble friend the Minister agree that the family courts would benefit enormously from having parental alienation defined in law? Can she further agree that the use of children as a weapon in adult conflicts is a form of child abuse and that this matter should fly above all politics and issues of gender, since it equally affects men and women, their children and their wider families? Lastly, can she confirm that parental alienation will remain in the final version of the guidance to the Bill and that Cafcass—that is to say, the experts and not the ideologues—will play a central role in advising the committee that will examine the guidance? I beg to move.
My Lords, the amendments in this group seek once again to put parental alienation both in capitals and in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has again outlined her reasons for this. However, I do not hear any difference in objective from the amendments tabled in Committee. Those of us who oppose the amendments believe that adding parental alienation to the Bill is redundant because the alienating behaviours that she referred to are already caught in the definitions of coercive control. Further, the Government have agreed to add a phrase about alienating behaviours to the statutory guidance, which will sit alongside some of the other patterns of behaviour in domestic abuse.
As was mentioned in Committee, there are already problems in our family courts with one parent—often but absolutely not always the father of the child or children—alleging such behaviour. Unfortunately, as outlined in the Ministry of Justice’s harm panel report, fear of false allegations of parental alienation means that survivors and children of abusive and coercive relationships are suppressing evidence for fear that the charge of alienation will be made against them. Indeed, it is becoming such a worry in the family courts that even their solicitors are advising them against such evidence. There can be a history of abusive behaviour, especially coercive control, that is not presented formally to the family courts. This can include violence, restraining orders, criminal convictions and long-term patterns of such behaviour. Perpetrators of such fixated behaviour can often sound convincing and their ex-partners are often terrified of their behaviour, even in a court hearing.
In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and I went through some of the history of the development of parental alienation syndrome, which I will not repeat today, since we are now on Report, other than to say that there is evidence from the family courts of some abuse of a parental alienation defence. There are also some questions to be asked about the role of so-called experts in this area. Practice direction 25B, on the duties of an expert, the expert’s report and arrangements for an expert to attend court, is very clear on the requirements, including registration with a UK statutory body or having appropriate academic qualifications. The expert must also have completed the training. There are concerns from contested cases that some experts in this area might not have met this high bar, so I ask the Minister what checks there are to ensure that all expert witnesses meet practice direction 25B.
That is also why the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and my noble friend Lord Marks have tabled Amendment 44. We need to ensure that the courts are aware of the implications of a whole range of behaviours, especially in some of these egregious cases where there might have been some controlling, abusive, coercive and even alienating behaviour. The definition of coercive control—after many years of campaigning by organisations such as Women’s Aid and others, it is thankfully now a crime—is
“an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten”
the victim. That seems to fit very well the definition that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has been seeking. I hope that, on this basis, she will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I have supported this amendment on the basis that it shows what the general definitions reveal and include. I do not think that it will be necessary to pursue it, if we have a clear understanding that the sort of behaviour that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has described is covered by the phrase “controlling or coercive behaviour”.
There is another important definition that deals with children being used as weapons against their parents. It points out that activity towards a child may well be against the parent. Clause 1(5) says:
“For the purposes of this Act A’s behaviour may be behaviour ‘towards’ B despite the fact that it consists of conduct directed at another person (for example, B’s child).”
I am certain that there are a large number of cases in which one parent, using his or her relationship with the child, seeks to damage that child’s relationship with the other parent. It is a natural weaponising in a conflict, which is apt to come forward in this sort of fighting between parents. When they are antagonistic towards each other, they are apt to try to bring children to their side of the dispute, which strikes me as extremely dangerous.
I believe that the attempt to use one parent’s relationship to damage the children’s relationship with the other parent is an obnoxious type of controlling or coercive behaviour. I verily believe that, if allowed to persist until the end, you will get parental alienation, because the operation of trying to damage the child’s relationship with that parent ultimately succeeds. That is what alienation is: by that means, the child has been successfully cut off from the other parent’s company, love and support. As we show, the law as it stands includes that.
The reason for the amendment is to illustrate that that is so, simply to make it possible to have this debate on Report. There was a tremendous amount of debate in Committee suggesting that parental alienation should not be contemplated. Sadly, I fear that, if the conduct that we have described succeeds, it will continue to happen. The Bill already, properly, includes a definition that deals with the kind of behaviour that underlies attempts to alienate the other parent from their child.
I strongly believe that this broad definition should not be restricted. I felt that the addition of qualifications in other amendments restricted the wide definition presently in the Bill. That is important, because domestic abuse is a large area and the definition manages to encompass it with great success. Therefore, the reason for the amendment is to illustrate that the conduct in question is included in the definition. Once that is accepted, as I hope it will be, the amendment will not be unnecessary.
My Lords, as one would expect, that was a fascinating contribution. In some ways, it answers a lot of my questions. I am completely behind the purpose of this amendment. To my mind, as someone who is experienced but not expert, there is nothing about the phrases in Clause 1(3)(c) and Clause 1(3)(e) that naturally covers alienation behaviour. If one were to describe this in plain English, neither of those concepts would comfortably accommodate controlling behaviour which by its nature takes place remotely. Once you have got into the business of alienation, the two parents, typically, are not together. It is difficult to see what element of control or coercion can be exercised by alienation or how, in the context of domestic abuse, the wide phrasing of
“psychological, emotional or other abuse”
could certainly be construed as covering alienation. I hope that the Government will make it clear to me and the public in general, by what they say and do outside the Bill, that alienation absolutely is covered. But I need to see that in clear and unambiguous terms.
My Lords, my support for this amendment comes without the personal experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, or the legal expertise of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Like him, I hope that this amendment is unnecessary in reality. I cannot proceed without paying tribute to the noble Baroness for her unstinting efforts to ensure that alienation of children by one parent against another is accorded its proper place in discussion of the Bill. Her efforts and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, have been inspirational.
My concern throughout is for the protection of children and intervention in abusive situations at as early a stage as possible to ensure that their life chances are best fostered. It is well understood by psychologists that perpetrators of controlling and coercive behaviour will often try to separate their victim from outside contact—from friends, family, religious or social groups and even by preventing the means of communication necessary to seek help. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, perpetrators are often the most confident, plausible and convincing of people. Their victims, by comparison, are often confused, anxious and timid. Both may have deeper attachment issues.
Here we are concerned with a different direction of travel, namely conscripting the innocent as proxies to alienation as part of a contest with a partner. There are doubtless many versions of this, commonly using a weak or compliant adult proxy, but there is one type that warrants special attention and that is the deliberate enmeshing of the children of a relationship by one party as a tool or lever against the other. No other identifiable category so conveniently presents itself as a vehicle for this leverage; no other proxy is so trustingly vulnerable to exploitation or so readily damaged, both in the short and long terms, by such actions.
It may be a self-justification of the perpetrator that it is for the better protection of the children from the other partner, and it merely invites retaliation by precisely the same means. I have mentioned before the perils of a wholly adversarial and corrosive no-holds-barred approach to sorting out these domestic contests. The resident parent is clearly in a strong position to influence, and issues such as access to children and much else may hang on this. The very presence of children may, paradoxically, prevent the sort of clean break that some might wish for. Typically, the children are and remain the biological offspring of both partners. What they receive from ancestors may influence what they pass down to their own offspring in turn. The toxic adversarial circumstances of a relationship breakdown of adults seems capable of rendering them particular harm. Children, as minors, are entitled to the protection of their parents and, where that fails, to the protection of society. In my opinion, society is bound to take note of those impacts on them that might lead to perpetuation of abuse in future generations.
I have been surprised by the degree of antipathy that I have experienced following the parental alienation amendment in Committee. I did not think that this was in the least bit controversial, nor worthy of such sustained criticism. But I have been heartened by the comments of many others—from male and female viewpoints—and I thank them all for the trouble they have taken to write to me.
The first criticism is that parental alienation is not defined, but it is accepted that alienating activity does exist and has long been recognised, so I take it that the use of children as proxies in the process suffers, in this instance, from a liability to multiple interpretations.
Until recently, what we now know as domestic abuse was referred to as domestic violence, so the process of definition and refinement of terms is ongoing work in progress and affords no grounds for inaction. Absence of definition may be a factor for campaigning organisations and in legal circles, but my impression is that psychologists are very clear what it is, how to recognise it and how those involved can be helped. This ties in with the views of those who feel that psychology and judicial process should work more closely and effectively.
Secondly, I was accused of being an apologist for the work of Dr Gardner, who apparently first coined the phrase “parental alienation”. I believe that things have moved on in the last 40 years; the concept of parental alienation has been substantially refined and research by psychologists has moved on accordingly. I feel that that criticism was long ago superseded.
The third criticism is that parental alienation is simply part of a larger category of coercion and controlling activity, a point made in a briefing by the Victims’ Commissioner. However, the particular circumstances of deliberately enmeshing children as proxies in an adult battle are relatively self-contained. There are special parental and societal responsibilities towards, and particular vulnerabilities associated with, this category of young person. Parental alienation has the potential to cause great damage to children’s life chances, and it is identifiable and, in many instances, preventable. I do not see this as another manifestation in the generality of coercion and control, but something much more specific.
The final matter is that parental alienation is used as a tool for abusers to get back at their partners, with potentially significant outcomes. It is not for me to comment on the twists and turns of clever advocacy in the courts or on any perceived deficiency in the way decisions are reached in the best interests of the child. But I hope that in future, progress will be aided by the excellent work of Cafcass, whose resources might usefully be enhanced.
The Ministers were kind enough to arrange a meeting on this matter a few days ago and I thank them for that. I say again what I said then: the matter having now been raised, as was inevitable, doing nothing may be as detrimental as detractors suggest agreeing to the amendment would be. Inaction risks leaving this specific evil in limbo, the subject of further legal battles and causing yet more damage to young lives.
The Government need to act, if not in this Bill then in guidance, so that we identify and name this particular type of alienation for what it is—a form of domestic abuse—and that we furthermore signal that this is no longer a lever to be used in an adult conflict. I finish where I started by saying that I hope that, in the end, it will be found that this amendment is unnecessary.
My Lords, I agree with the Government’s decision to keep a broad definition of domestic abuse. I believe that the coercive nature of alienation is covered in the Bill, so I am afraid that I do not consider this amendment necessary. However, having not spoken on this issue in Committee, I would like to speak briefly to say that, although the amendment is not needed, the issue is real.
I understand the concerns about the way alienation is used by perpetrators, but that does not negate the incalculable harm that was done to my noble friend Lady Meyer and her family and to the many other parents, grandparents and children who have found themselves in a similar position. Her determination to bring a greater understanding and awareness is impressive. It took great courage to stand up in this Chamber and share what is ultimately a very private, very painful experience. That experience should not simply be dismissed and I welcome the fact that work is ongoing in this area, so that we may properly understand this complicated, often devastating problem.
My Lords, I speak against Amendment 2 as I did against the comparable amendment in Committee. I also express my opposition to the inclusion of alienating behaviour in the statutory guidance.
In Committee, having begun examining the issue of claims of parental alienation with an open mind, I focused particularly on the research and expert evidence, including a complete issue of the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law. Today, I will reflect on what came next. As I expected, having spoken in your Lordships’ House, written an accompanying op-ed and shared both outputs on social media, I got a significant response.
A lot of that response was emotional and angry. That did not surprise me, since we are talking about the most intimate of personal relationships, and I was more tolerant of aggressive tones than I would have been on other topics. But something struck me in many of the responses that I received. It was the use of the word “right”, as in “my right to see my children”, “parents’ rights”, “my right to direct my children’s future”. That crystalised some of the unease that I had felt in reading the academic claims backing a so-called syndrome of parental alienation—explicitly or implicitly, that was where they were coming from.
We live, of course, in what continues to be a patriarchy. Claims laid down for millennia that the father is the head of the household, that, as in ancient Rome—the classical world that some of our current Government seem to so admire—he had the right even to kill any member of it without the law offering any legal protection at all, are extremely hard to wipe away.
Under British law, until 1839 every father had the absolute right to keep control of his children should their mother leave. Even after 1839, only women who had the means to petition the Court of Chancery had a chance of keeping what we would now call custody, and then only if they could demonstrate an absolute moral clean sheet. The father’s morals were irrelevant. If your Lordships want to see how there is nothing new about coercive control, the life of Caroline Norton, whose brave, landmark campaigning won that change in the law, will demonstrate that. The global pervasiveness of this patriarchal ideology was referred to earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, said in opening this group that the Bill should not be caught up in gender politics. This issue—the entire Bill—is deeply, inevitably gendered, however much the Government might try to deny it. The struggle to get to the situation we are apparently in now, where the wellbeing of the child is predominant in decisions made about that child, was one long struggle against a society run by men in their own interests. But now we are faced with renewed efforts, a fightback for a “presumption of contact”—an assumption that if a child says they do not want to spend time with a parent, the other parent must be turning the child against them.
After entering the debate publicly in Committee, I was contacted by women who told me what presumption of contact and a fear of an accusation of parental alienation had done to them. I want to give them voice, so I will report one such case. I will call her Camilla, although that is not her name. Her account was of seven years of hellish coercive control and physical assault. She remained, at least in part, because the partner concerned told her that he would claim parental alienation if she left and did not allow wide access to the children. She was concerned about what would happen during that access.
After Camilla had left the relationship, she went through court case after court case as he claimed rights to parental access, while not paying the child maintenance that he could have afforded, and alleging that the children’s expressions of a desire not to spend time with him were a result of so-called parental alienation. Such offenders, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, can be extremely convincing in a public space and in contact with professionals.
For fear of not being believed, Camilla told her child that should anything bad happen when they were with their father, the child should not tell her, but should instead tell an official authority figure. So, that upper primary school age child declared, in front of many peers and school officials at a school gathering, that their father was physically abusing his new girlfriend in front of them. Then, happily, safeguarding apparatuses kicked in, as they should have. A few weeks later that child disclosed, again to people outside the family, that they had been sexually abused by an individual that the father had left them with. It is a horrendous account and one that I will long remember, and I think of the difficulties and pressures on that child.
This brings me to my final point, one that I do not think our debate in Committee really brought out. It is about the impact on a child of being told that they are deluded, or that their mother or father is leading them astray, or lying to them, and that their own impressions, feelings, desires and beliefs about not being with a parent are some kind of false consciousness. When a child says that they do not want contact, they need to be given—no doubt for their own well-being—the chance to explore that with trained professionals and given the time to explain, to discuss and to vent their feelings.
Above all, children need to be listened to. Imagine what it feels like to have stated very clearly to officialdom that you do not want to spend time with a parent, that you have seen them doing things that are illegal or vicious or clearly damaging to other human beings, then being forced by a court to spend time with them anyway.
I was talking about these issues with a friend of mine who is over the age of 80. I was fascinated when she explained how, not through the agency of the court but through community and social pressure, she had been forced to spend teenage weekend days with her father who had separated from her mother years before. She felt that her father did not really want to be there, and she certainly did not want to be there as a teenager, but she did not have agency or control. More than 60 years later those weekends clearly still had an impact on her. We know that agency and control of one’s own self, being listened to and believed, are crucial for well-being.
It would appear that this amendment is not going to be pushed to a Division, so on one level this is academic. That is narrowly true in terms of the progress of this Bill, but in terms of defending a hard-won, long-fought-for principle of children’s interests being paramount in the official approach to custody and access, against the weight of those millennia when the father’s control was absolute or near absolute, this is an important debate. Let us keep the well-being of children as the sole goal—a very recent goal that is both a moral right and one that will give us the healthiest possible society.
My Lords, that was a very powerful speech in favour of the aims of the amendment. At the end of the last debate in Committee when I spoke I said that I was somewhat ambivalent, although I totally supported what my noble friend Lady Meyer was seeking to do. That remains my position to a large degree, although I have come down—if it were a case of this amendment going to the vote, which I hope it will not—of probably being on the side of my noble friend. There is nothing more admirable in life than somebody who dedicates himself or herself to trying to ensure that others do not suffer as he or she has done. The noble Baroness’s campaign, over 20 years or more now, to ensure that other women and men should not have to tread the road she was obliged to tread is wholly admirable and commendable. There is nothing more wicked—and I chose my words with some care—than seeking to corrupt the mind of a child, particularly so that that child is turned against either their father or, more often, sadly, their birth mother.
We have devoted time recently to debating the importance of motherhood—there is nothing more important in the world. My noble friend Lady Meyer has clearly suffered greatly. She does not want others to suffer greatly in the same way, nor do any of us. It is a question of how we achieve her aim without making this Bill more difficult. As I listened to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and to my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, I thought that between them they had got it right. They both signed this amendment but they do not really want it to be necessary.
It is crucial that, when my noble friend the Minister comes to reply, she recognises the enormity of the problem to which my noble friend Lady Meyer has bravely drawn our attention—which cannot have been easy—and promises that we will have guidance to go with the Bill that will make it absolutely clear, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that anyone who indulges in the sort of behaviour indulged in by my noble friend’s former husband is falling foul of the law in a very real way. The corruption of children is beyond the pale in any civilised society, and this Bill—I refer to it again as a landmark Bill, which it is—needs to set the benchmark of how we regard these things for the next quarter of a century or more.
I hope my noble friend who will reply to this debate will be able to satisfy my other noble friend Lady Meyer that her concerns are truly understood and that those who put others through the ordeal which she was put through will be punished for it.
My Lords, I support this amendment in the name of noble Baroness, Lady Meyer. I thank her for all the work she has done to try to minimise the amount of involvement in the Bill necessary to make us all aware of this important issue. The amendment is designed to explicitly ensure that parental alienation is properly defined in the Bill. We have, of course, had indications today that it may be in statutory guidance, and that may be sufficient to ensure that the rights of children to see parents when it is appropriate to do so are adhered to. The amendment is not gender biased. It recognises that either parent, mother or father, may deliberately behave in such a way as to damage the relationship between a child and the other parent.
Parental Alienation UK has outlined a range of behaviours from one parent to another and I want to focus on one: when a parent makes false allegations of abuse, fitness to parent, substance abuse or mental health problems. I have worked with people with severe, enduring mental health problems where, when they have been severely ill and psychotic, it has been inappropriate for them to see their children. However, it is absolutely clear that, with modern treatment and access to supervised contact, most parents at some point should be able to see their children. That is not because of the rights of the parents. It is about the child’s right to know that the parent loves them and wants to see them, even if they are not in a position to look after them on a permanent basis. I believe that, as soon as is practicable, supervised access should be organised for children if they want to see the parent—the one they do not live with—if that parent is well enough to see them.
It is important that children know that both their parents want to stay in contact. If this is the case, the child is in a position, when they become an adult, to decide for themselves how much contact to maintain with each parent. I have heard other noble Lords oppose the amendment and I equally believe that no child should be made to see a parent without supervision if the court has decided that this would be inappropriate. I completely agree that we should recognise the vital role of Cafcass in this situation, but it is demeaning if the other parent of your child destroys letters, mementoes and gifts that you have sent, perhaps while you are too ill to see the child. These kinds of behaviour should be deliberately excluded and parents should be encouraged to try to work together through mediation. It should obviously be for the courts to decide and to determine whether parental alienation is occurring and to make decisions for access between a child and a parent, based always on the best interests of the child.
I believe that those who do not agree with this amendment have the same focus as I and others who are supporting it: to try to ensure that children grow up knowing that they have been loved, where this is so, and that they have been able, where it is safe to do so, to be in contact with both parents. I understand that the amendment may be better written within the statutory guidance and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s opinion on this matter.
My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Meyer for the work that she has done and, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said, the effort that she has put in to trying to make sure that the suffering that she has been through is not repeated or, should it be, that the victims have proper protection under the law.
I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could confirm what my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay asserted: that the deliberately broad definitions in the Bill, which I know my noble friend has explained to the House, are ground-breaking and deliberately so and provide the widest possible access to justice for victims by having broad definitions under which others can fall. Will “controlling or coercive behaviour” in Clause 1(3)(c),
“psychological, emotional or other abuse”
in Clause 1(3)(e), and “conduct directed” at their child in Clause 1(5) cover situations where a parent deliberately damages the relationship between their child and the other parent in order to alienate that child?
For example, a father of African origin wrote to me about his partner, who had been turning their four year-old child against him since they had decided to divorce. The child, previously loving, suddenly did not wish to spend time with him. He said: “My ex made several unfounded allegations of domestic abuse to stop me from seeing my child. Not a single allegation was proven, or true, but she constantly and unjustifiably obstructed my contact with my child. I recall that a year ago my child refused to have a bath that I had run for him. He said his mother told him, ‘Daddy puts witchcraft in the tub’.” He said that the alienation built up over time so that the child now refuses to see him. Can my noble friend confirm that that father would have protection under the Bill?
I have personal experience of other situations where parents were cut out from the lives of their children. The children were being manipulated or weaponised and the wider family cut off from grandchildren and nieces and nephews. I would never want a child to be forced to be with an abusive parent. However, the ex-partner of a friend of mine, who met a new partner from Australia and wanted to move there, decided to try to break the children away from their parent. In that instance, they were told: “Daddy does not love you, because you look like me and Daddy hates me. If you see Daddy, I will get sad. If you see Daddy, he will kidnap you, because he does not want me to be with you any more. If you say that you hate Daddy and you don’t want to see him, I will buy you a bike or take you on holiday.” This is something that has really happened. I hope that my noble friend will confirm that victims of such alienation will automatically be covered under the broad definitions, so that we will not need to press this amendment to a vote.
I hope that the controversy that seems to have been caused by the term “parental alienation”, which has driven the different wording of this amendment, can be settled by being tested in court. I fully agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, when she says that the child needs to be listened to and assessed by professionals. The key is for the courts to be aware that alienation such as in these examples may happen and, sadly, is not a rare occurrence. As my noble friend Lady Meyer said, we have had well over a thousand signatures in a short space of time from parents who themselves have suffered this form of abuse. If the courts are looking for this situation and can bring in experts to assess whether what the child is saying has been driven by fear instilled in them by the other parent unnecessarily, unreasonably, or deliberately to rupture the relationship with that parent, the justice system will be able to differentiate between the genuine cases, where a domestic abuser or abuser of children should not have unsupervised contact with their own child, and cases such as have been described.
Cases have been clearly identified in academic studies and evidence where parents who would otherwise be able to enjoy a relationship with their child are denied that opportunity and the child is denied access to that parent and their family. That can cause lifelong mental and emotional damage to the child and, indeed, to the parent. In some cases, the distress of being broken away from one’s children or grandchildren has caused suicide. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to confirm that this is indeed covered by the Bill and I look forward to hearing what she has to say.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. That speech was so well articulated, passionate and thought-provoking. I also echo and “Hear, hear” her comments on the exemplary work of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on this issue.
I have previously expressed concern that the Bill expands the definition of domestic abuse too widely because I worry that some categorisations of abuse, such as emotional and psychological, are too subjective and broad to guarantee justice. Every time I look, a new category of abuse has been added. We have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, that we now have “spiritual” abuse. Even the focus on domestic abuse is endangered as we stretch what constitutes “domestic” far wider than I think is helpful. My concern is that too much is being thrown at the Bill, meaning agencies and the police will not be able to see the wood for the trees.
I am not going off-topic in relation to this amendment, because I raised those caveats in relation to these issues in Committee. But I am now satisfied, having mulled it over and done a lot of research, that this is one area which the Bill can usefully cover. This abuse is well and truly domestic because it is about parental relationships. If ever there was a concrete example of abusive, coercive control, it has to be in using children against their parents. This form of alienation is a specific form of controlling behaviour that needs to be acknowledged somehow in legislation.
Any of us with any experience of toxic relationship break-ups will be more than aware that, in some instances, the understandable hurt which can lead to nastiness may spill over into weaponising children against one or other parent. When this becomes systematic alienation, it may be useful and necessary for the law to step in. What cannot be denied is that the consequences of being alienated from one’s own children are tragic and devastating, and that people in that situation have little recourse to justice. Think of the consequences: you often cannot see your child or children because of the alienation; your children are told the most heinous accusations against you; their views are poisoned against you.
At the very least, one might expect that supporters of the Bill would be sympathetic to children being coerced or alienated in this way. Instead, there has been an enormous deluge of organised lobbying against this amendment. That would be fine, but it has taken a particularly aggressive and hostile form, as hinted at by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. I find that worrying in and of itself. One of the main arguments used is that parental alienation is a tool used fraudulently by abusive fathers to gain access to their children. But this very accusation is, sadly, used to demonise those supporting this amendment, who are accused of being apologists for abusive fathers.
The emphasis of the amendment’s opponents is on the danger of false allegations of alienation. I too worry, as I have said throughout discussion on the Bill, about false allegations, especially in relation to such emotive, interpersonal matters. It is one reason why any allegations must not be automatically accepted as truth or fact; they need due process and to be sensitively interrogated. But that is true of all allegations, including those of domestic abuse. If this amendment can be misused for false allegations then the whole Bill can be misused and lead to more of them, but I do not think we should halt the Bill.
In two instances I have known of parental alienation, fathers were falsely accused of domestic abuse by the mothers before being totally cleared of any wrongdoing; the mothers admitted that, in their bitterness, they overegged what they had said. But this was after the fathers’ reputations were trashed, with the children told their father was, effectively, a wife-molesting monster. It caused great misery to be endured by the extended families, in both instances, and affected the well-being of the children. It was totally cruel and very hard to get over.
In such an instance, we are talking not about abusive fathers using this provision but about innocent people being accused—being victims, not abusers. Children are also victims here, because both parents should be equally open to their children, as various people have mentioned. There is something specific about this amendment that needs to be considered. If anything, I would argue we should accept it in whatever form. All allegations of any sort—of coercion, alienation or abuse—should be properly scrutinised in family courts by the criminal civil law, but we must show real care when we accept whoever’s version of events in matters of this nature.
Some scepticism has been shown, both in the lobbying I have received and in what has been said so far, towards the 35 years of clinical, legal and scientific evidence that have backed up this issue of parental alienation. We have already heard people question today what kind of experts these are and whether we can trust this kind of expertise. Yet throughout the Bill, to be frank, we have heard all sorts of evidence cited as fact. Even when it has been contested, it has largely been nodded through and experts have been quoted without anyone querying that. I worry that there is a certain one-sided nature to the hostility to this amendment, when it is reasonable and fair that it is brought into the law.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to say it is beyond argument that this is an important Bill. In my professional career, I dealt with many cases of child abuse. I practised at the criminal Bar, not the family Bar. Fortunately, sitting as a recorder, I did not have to try or sentence anyone convicted of child abuse.
It is important to get the legislation right. At my first reading, I thought the Bill was sufficiently comprehensive to deal with any wrongdoing. The steps in the ladder are clear: first, the relationship is set out in Clause 1(2); then we go on to the type of relationship, supplemented in subsections (3) and (4); then subsection (5) deals with indirect behaviour. The amendment’s supporters seek to redefine this, by adding words to give an example of behaviour which is reprehensible. I understand the aims of the proposers and their real concerns. We have listened to the passionate speeches made today. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has added his name to the amendment. From long experience, I would listen to his words, and the House always does with very great respect.
My fear is that this amendment is over-prescriptive. Putting this into the Bill might limit the generality of the encompassing nature of subsection (5). At the moment, I have serious doubts about whether the amendment is needed at all, as such particularising may limit the thrust of the subsection so far as other conduct is concerned. In these circumstances, having heard all the arguments, I would recommend its rejection by your Lordships.
My Lords, I commend my noble friend Lady Meyer on her courage and resilience in tabling this amendment again today. I first had the privilege of meeting her and hearing her story many years ago, and since then she has been a tireless campaigner on this issue despite, as we have seen both today and in Committee, often intense and personal challenge.
As we have heard, parental alienation is a devastating form of abuse that can extend for decades and have deeply traumatic effects on both the children and the excluded parent. There has, however, been strong resistance to recognising this as a form of abuse. Those who oppose it argue that abusive parents may themselves use the defence of parental alienation to continue their abuse. Surely, though, this is precisely why we have judges. We must have confidence in our courts and our police to make these judgments, just as they have to make countless others every day of the week.
The amendment seeks insert into the legislation the line
“such as a parent’s behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent”.
I am hopeful that the Government should be able to confirm that this is indeed included in the definition of coercion, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay and my noble friend Lady Meyer have requested. This addition would specifically draw attention to parental alienation while simultaneously giving the family courts a sound basis on which to better distinguish between genuine and false allegations of parental alienation. The amendment identifies parental alienation and protects those who are vulnerable from exploitation of the law.
The dynamics expressed in the amendment are important for a number of reasons. Alienation adversely affects the psychological development of a child in that it prevents a natural, healthy bond and relationship with a parent. A child needs to be nurtured and protected by its mother. Erica Komisar, a leading expert in attachment theory and the neuroscience of motherhood, highlights that children are at a higher risk of social, emotional and developmental issues when the essential presence of a mother is missing. But it is equally important that the child should have a relationship with their father. In a major study by the Journal of Applied Economics entitled The Impact of Income and Family Structure on Delinquency, it was found that when the interactions between a parent and a child diminish, such as in the case of parental alienation, the child perceives a decline in that parent’s benevolence. If the decline is sufficient, the child will accept its implications and move to feelings of abandonment, alienation and a lack of trust. Both the parent and the child are worse off.
Research from the Institute for Family Studies has also found that, controlling for race and parental income, boys raised without their father are much more likely to use drugs, engage in violent or criminal activity and drop out of school, while girls are more likely to engage in early sexual activity or have a child out of wedlock. The consequences of parental alienation can be deep and severe on the next generation.
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. There is a need for qualified professionals to assist the court in assessing whether there is abuse and, if so, its severity and how it should affect child/parent residence and contact arrangements. But the need for expertise in handling these delicate situations should not dissuade us from addressing this often hidden but deeply damaging form of abuse.
The Bill is strengthened if it captures all forms of domestic abuse and improves outcomes for those who are vulnerable to experiencing it, and we look to the Minister today to confirm that the concept of alienation is included within the definition of domestic abuse.
My Lords, I too wish to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for her two decades of campaigning after a horrific experience that most people would not be able to turn into such a positive contribution. I wish her, the co-signatories to the amendment and all Members of your Lordships’ House a happy International Women’s Day. It is a celebratory moment, as well as a moment of remembrance which was started over 100 years ago by radical working women.
I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for doing something that seems all too rare in our polarised and sometimes even toxic public discourse. She has listened. I did not participate in this part of the debate in Committee, but I was struck by her speech and by the contributions that were informed by the work of various women’s organisations, and survivor organisations in particular, about the contested or loaded nature of the term “parental alienation”. I am not a psychologist, a social worker or an expert on this topic, but I was moved by contributions from those who are, not least the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
It seems that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has indeed listened and has attempted in her reformulation to address behaviour rather than syndromes in a precise way that is more appropriate to legislation on difficult issues. I have no doubt that many abusive men will seek to use the term “alienation” as a stick with which to beat the surviving former partner, but, equally, I have no doubt that men and women are capable of weaponising their children during terrible relationship breakdown. I also have no doubt that this is a gendered world and a very unequal one, whether we like it or not, and that this inequality affects women, but also men and boys. It is a very vicious spiral indeed.
I turn now to the precise drafting of both the amendment and the Bill as it stands, because I have to agree with the co-signatory to the amendment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon. It is absolutely beyond doubt that, to quote the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, to use a child as a proxy in a dispute between parents, to weaponise or manipulate them in the way described, whether the perpetrator is male or female, is indisputably covered by the Bill as it is currently drafted.
I shall briefly explain why. First, Clause 1(3)(a) to (e) covers
“physical or sexual abuse … violent or threatening behaviour … controlling or coercive behaviour … economic abuse … psychological, emotional or other abuse.”
Secondly, and most crucially, this behaviour is covered in Clause 1(5) and is taken as being directed at the victim of domestic abuse even if it is directed at another person, for example the victim’s child. So if you combine the very explicit reference to behaviour that is directed at a child as a means of getting at the victim of domestic abuse with the earlier categories of controlling behaviour or psychological and emotional abuse in particular, there is no doubt in my mind that the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, about a parent’s behaviour being deliberately designed to damage the relationship and so on is covered. That being the case, I think it would be a mistake to add a “such as”. That term is always difficult and potentially dangerous as a statutory construction, for the reasons given by my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon.
In this particular context, my concern is that if we were to say, at the end of Clause 1(5), “such as deliberately designed to damage”, what about the situation where a child is threatened with violence rather than being manipulated for the purposes of destroying the relationship with the other child? That “such as” has not been included and we do not want to suggest in any sense a hierarchy of abuse or to emphasise the manipulation against another parent through, for example, threatening a child with violence. “If you leave me, I will poison your child against you” is a terrible threat, as are “If you leave me, I will beat up the children” or “If you leave me, I will cut off the children.” These are all terrible evils that in the Bill as currently drafted were intended to be and are addressed.
I hope that the Minister will agree with that construction. I think it is beyond doubt, but it is for her, obviously, as the Minister to say whether I am right. If she agrees with my construction that this is clearly covered, in particular by the use of Clause 1(5), I really hope that, as was indicated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, will feel able to withdraw this amendment, not because it depends on statutory guidance—that will no doubt be argued about and the detail will be got right; there is more room for all sorts of psychological debates about syndromes, et cetera, but that is not my place—but because the clause as drafted already covers the evil that the noble Baroness has spent so many years trying to address. If the Minister is of that view and puts it on the record, that will be a matter of Pepper v Hart and public record.
With that, I congratulate everyone who has spoken in this debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for listening and for her courage, and others who perhaps disagreed with her amendment but none the less understand that this is a terrible thing to do to a child. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that the child comes first from a human rights perspective. This is a terrible thing to do to a child, but it is also a heartbreaking thing to do to a former partner.
My Lords, I support the purpose of this amendment, and in doing so I also pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on this matter. She has been consistent in her determined efforts to ensure that the impact on children is not forgotten in debates on the Bill and that parental alienation is much better defined than is the case at present. I believe that the Bill would benefit from greater clarification.
It is vital that, among the many difficult and complex issues within the Bill, we consider the impact that parental behaviour can have on their children. Sadly, there are times when the actions of one parent can, over time, damage and diminish the child’s relationship with the other parent.
I decided to participate in this debate because I have witnessed this behaviour and the devastating impact it can have, through manipulation, the loss of self-esteem and confidence, the fear of even correcting a child for misbehaviour in case it results in reporting back to the other parent and, in doing so, perpetuating the abuse and alienation. This can obviously have lasting emotional and psychological effects on the parent but also, importantly, on the child.
As has been stated a number of times, these are complex and sensitive issues, and such instances must be handled with extreme care, bearing in mind the particular circumstances of each individual case. However, when a child is forced into choosing sides in an argument, when the emotional stability and authority of one parent is consistently undermined by the other, this puts the child or children in a potentially traumatic situation. This should be considered a form of abuse and included within the scope of the Bill.
The consequences can include insomnia, depression, lack of confidence as well as long-term difficulties in rebuilding relationships and in relationships with others. This amendment makes it clear that damaging the relationship between a child and a parent is abusive behaviour. By extension, this makes the Bill more thorough in the abuse it identifies and seeks to prevent. I acknowledge the wise advice from noble and learned Lords during this debate, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this discussion.
My Lords, I spoke in support of my noble friend Lady Meyer’s amendment in Committee and do so again. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Cormack, for I agreed with his every word.
I continue to read, and I continue to listen. The arguments have been well made, and again I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Meyer for her courage and resilience. It is clear to me that there are difficulties, opinions and alternative views—all that is legitimate. What is not legitimate is that the experiences and feelings of those who have suffered from alienation are either denied a voice or told that this does not happen. It plainly does.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, made a sensible point about the danger of creating a hierarchy of abuse, which I agree with. Can my noble friend the Minister assure me that the genuine and real cases of parental alienation—of which, sadly, there are many—must be heard? It could be a severe form of abuse if mention of parental alienation is not made within the guidance.
My Lords, I have no hesitation in supporting the aims of this amendment standing in the name of my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and others. I feel very strongly that we will listen—I certainly will—to what the Minister is going to say, because there are difficulties. I have listened to some of the opposition to the amendment, although there seems to be a very general agreement on the principles. It has now become a very wide-ranging Domestic Abuse Bill, so I really need to be satisfied that the aims and principles of what we are trying to do in this amendment, and what the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, is trying to do, will actually be satisfied without the amendment.
I believe that we should use the Bill to protect children and their victim mothers or fathers from psychological abusive and coercive control. During my 30 years as a Member of Parliament, I had many cases of parents, male and female, coming to see me and telling me in harrowing tones what was happening. They did not use the words “parental alienation”—it is a very Americanised term, which I personally do not like. But I listened to the some of the ways in which they talked, very simply—[Inaudible.]
My Lords, I understand and sympathise with those who have been the victims of a spouse or partner who has turned the children of their family against them—of course it takes place. It is an intensely sad situation, deeply unfair to the children as well as to the victim parent.
As a family judge, I tried a number of such cases, and I have to tell noble Lords that I very nearly wept in court when all efforts to change the children’s attitude had failed. I remain with a vivid recollection of some of those cases. But we need to recognise that there are two different situations: there are the children who witness the abuse of a parent against the other parent or have suffered from hearing it, and there are the children who suffer from the parent who is alienating them from the other parent. That is the background, and it is important that judges understand the context and can differentiate between the absent parent, who by his or her actions has forfeited the right to have a proper relationship with the children, and those who have been wrongly and unjustly deprived of such a relationship.
As I said in Committee, this requires judicial training. I have reflected since Committee on what the training should be and the extent to which it is already carried out, and I have done a little research. In my view, it is already very well provided by the Judicial College, which is chaired by a Court of Appeal judge. It is divided into different committees, and one such committee deals exclusively with family issues.
When I was a High Court judge, I was for several years the chairman of the family committee of the predecessor of the college. Newly appointed judges have mandatory training before they can try family cases, and there is regular, continuing training for family judges and magistrates.
My Lords, I am terribly sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Baroness, but I think she may be speaking to a later amendment, which we will reach in the ninth group. We are currently speaking to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on parental alienation.
Although I have the deepest sympathy for those who have suffered this unjust behaviour from the other spousal partner, I do not believe that the amendment, for all its good intentions, should be part of the Bill or should be set in primary legislation. It is telling the judges to do what they do already and will not change the situations on the ground. I do not believe the moral or psychological effect of primary legislation will have any effect on those who behave in such a way, nor help the sufferers of this serious, unfair behaviour. Consequently, I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, that the family courts would benefit. On the contrary, it would give them no support at all. I also disagree with the view of Cafcass and, for these reasons, I do not support the amendment.
My Lords, I was very distressed during Committee on the Bill at the way the House has become so polarised over this amendment. I believe a way can and should be found to do justice to both sides of the argument, for both raise real and serious concerns.
Clearly the term “parental alienation” has become controversial, coming as it does from the United States, where it has been so closely linked with gender politics, so I welcome the rewording of the amendment, where what we are dealing with is clearly defined.
Parental alienation was referred to in earlier debates as a “concept”, or even prefaced, as in the debate this afternoon, sadly, by the qualification “so-called”. But the concept arose on the basis of experience. The fact is that very many people, both men and women, have been alienated from their children as a result of the unacceptable behaviour of their partner or former partner. That it exists I have absolutely no doubt. Do the opponents of this amendment really doubt this?
At the same time, it is clear, particularly from the evidence of Women’s Aid, that some people use the concept of parental alienation to cover up child abuse. I am sure this happens, and I can believe that the greatest number of perpetrators are men.
So we are dealing with two realities, both of which have to be taken into account. In any given case, the evidence has to be heard and assessed and judgment given. This is what courts are for. This is what Cafcass is for. They know what it is and can recognise it for what it is. They have developed the child impact assessment framework to
“identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess the impact of different case factors on them, including parental alienation.”
At the same time, they will be well aware that there are cases where this is a cover for child abuse. This, too, they can recognise for what it is.
These are very difficult decisions. I would not like to have to make them myself. But the point is that there are people who are trained to make such decisions, and the courts use them. So I very much hope that the Government will accept this amendment, or at least, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, suggested, that the wording proposed in the amendment is clearly understood to be an example of coercion, and that this is set out equally clearly in statutory guidance.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the speech of my noble friend Lady Meyer and to those who support the amendment. I recognise their sincerity and good intentions and their desire to do the right thing for the victims of abuse and, above all, for children. But I am afraid I continue to have very serious concerns about the amendment and the ideas it seeks to introduce into the Bill. I do not think it is required to help those victims whom noble Lords wish to help. In fact, I fear that it will do the opposite; it will empower abusers. I am concerned that, despite the change in language, the amendment still rests on the idea of parental alienation and serves as a means of embedding that concept, so open to misuse as a means of covering up domestic abuse, in law. Parental alienation is a flawed model for addressing the experiences of the parents and children the amendment seeks to help.
I agree that parental behaviour
“deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent”,
in the words of the amendment, is unacceptable, but the concept of parental alienation is so open to misuse in a way that is deeply harmful to children who are victims of domestic violence that we must be extremely cautious. Its lack of rigorous scientific foundation or clear definition means that it does not in assist in addressing abuse. Rather, it has become a vehicle for minimising and evading legitimate allegations of domestic abuse and child abuse by suggesting that child victims, often suffering serious medical trauma and with valid reasons for resisting contact with the abusive parent, have been manipulated by the so-called alienating parent. In the United States, where the concept originated, when a parent claims alienation, courts are more than twice as likely to disbelieve evidence of any type of abuse and almost four times less likely to believe a protective parent’s claims of child abuse. The result is that children are often forced to live with their abuser and are at risk of serious harm, lifelong trauma and even death.
We do not need this imported into our law. I do not wish to diminish or ignore the experiences of those not feel that their relationships with their children have been undermined and damaged by a protective parent. They are victims too, and we must hear their voices. I am also open to being told that I am wrong, and I have sought additional clarification from experts on domestic abuse. They tell me that this behaviour is an example of coercive control. We already have the legal means to tackle it under existing laws on coercive control. The recognition of children as victims in the Bill should strengthen that, as should the very welcome government amendment on post-separation abuse.
A clause to tackle this behaviour already exists, and there can be no case for us introducing any concepts or amendments which come with so many proven risks to children attached. However, there is a strong case, as I shall argue later in my speech on my amendment on training, for the training of judges. Children must have contact with both parents, but not at any price. We cannot dismiss a child’s voice when they disclose abuse.
Before I close, I believe it is important to make one final point. This is not aimed at anyone in your Lordships’ House, but it is necessary as a matter of basic principle. I think it serves to confirm some of what I have said about the dangers of the concept of parental alienation that the behaviour of some of its proponents is aggressive, bullying and abusive. They attempt to silence anyone who disagrees with them. People who have dared challenge parental alienation have faced vitriolic attacks and regular attempts to undermine their career and even see them sacked from their job. Respected experts have been called fraudulent, corrupt, lying and biased. People who have devoted their career to tackling abuse have been described as child abusers.
We cannot ignore those attacks. Since we began to debate the Bill, they have increased. One person who has faced a great deal of harassment tells me that it has significantly escalated and continued on an almost daily basis since the Bill received its Second Reading in your Lordships’ House.
I have spent most of my career working in foreign policy. I have never witnessed behaviour such as this until I became involved in these debates. Many supporters of parental alienation outside this House seek to use abusive behaviour to silence their critics and, in doing so, they serve only to remind us why we have such serious concerns about this concept and why it is imperative that we do not allow it into our laws.
My Lords, I thank the House for its indulgence. I apologise, because my internet connection collapsed completely during the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and I missed a great deal of what she said.
Parental divorce or separation is the second most prevalent adverse event during childhood. There is plenty of evidence that most children who experience parental divorce do not develop long-lasting problems. Many studies show that children are remarkably resilient. Long-term studies of children in Romania after Ceausescu’s regime, for example, showed that, provided they were adopted into loving, caring families, they returned to an almost normal existence.
Even so, there are certain times when biology conflicts with resilience—for example, when children are first socialising, with puberty, with adolescence and with certain mental conditions. Nor can we ignore good follow-up studies of all ages which report problems. They confirm that, compared with children who remained in two-parent families, young people who experience parental divorce are at increased risk of a whole host of difficulties. These include depression later in life and may involve poor social values and behaviour, lack of empathy and various psychopathological disorders, substance abuse and academic underachievement.
These children and adolescents are much more vulnerable to various pressures, particularly when one divorced or separated parent deliberately attempts to undermine his or her offspring’s relationship with the other parent. This may not always be deliberate and, when it is, it may be difficult to prove in court. There are examples where this is clear cut, with substantial evidence of this kind of damaging behaviour.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, firmly said in her speech, this amendment is unquestionably about child abuse. Research clearly shows that this can have long-term effects on children as they become adults. Moreover, it is possible—although this is more difficult to show in long-term studies—that traits which a child may develop in consequence of this kind of behaviour may be passed on. The child’s own offspring—the grandchildren of the fractured experience—may be affected. There is, incidentally, increasing evidence of a biological mechanism for such inherited behaviour. There is a significant indication that this may be epigenetic—a chemical alteration which influences the way in which the genes function. Evidence is growing that it may be true for one particular set of conditions which are of growing interest in human development.
Autism spectrum disorder—so-called ASD—is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders in which multiple genetic and epigenetic factors definitely play a role. As long ago as 1991, the famous expert, Professor Rutter, pointed out mistaken stereotypes in psychiatric and behavioural genetics. He was decrying the idea that strong effects might mean that environmental influences must be unimportant. In America, Judith Kroll has pointed out that parental behaviour is critical in enhancing or reducing the negative effects on autistic children. This is often a particular problem with one or other, or both parents. Her study is a useful marker to consider.
I want briefly to mention Karey O’Hara’s remarkable follow-up study from Arizona, looking at 240 children over six to eight years. The study showed very clearly quite subtle changes in these children’s relationship with one or the other parent. Mental health problems, drug abuse and risky sexual behaviour were all common. She and her colleagues concluded that children in families with high levels of post-divorce conflict, which could certainly include the sorts of behaviour to which the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, referred, are an appropriate target group for preventive interventions. We know that these interventions work; they must surely be better than recourse to law. None the less, it is an important kind of child abuse because it can occasionally be hidden and difficult to see.
This is a vital discussion on an important amendment, and I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has seen fit to introduce it on Report.
My Lords, in Committee, we heard the very moving testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, whose children were abducted by their father and kept in Germany with very little contact between them and their mother. It appears that, during that separation, the father turned the children against her. It is a shocking and upsetting case of parental abduction. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her campaigning work on parental abduction. A friend of mine in Oslo, who has shared custody, is having the relationship between him and his son poisoned by the mother.
As my noble friend Lady Brinton said, such behaviour is already covered by Clause 1(3)(c) and (e) and subsection (5) of the Bill as it stands in a way that economic abuse is not. Parental alienation amounts to controlling or coercive behaviour and psychological or emotional abuse. It includes, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has said, conduct directed at another person—for example, the victim’s child.
As the noble Baroness said in Committee, using children as weapons in a war by one parent against the other can equally apply to mothers seeking to alienate fathers as to fathers seeking to alienate mothers. It can inflict damage on both parent and child. I fundamentally disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that this a gendered issue.
In Committee, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who has a wealth of experience, said that it is important to leave discretion over contact and parental alienation to the judges. She reinforced that this afternoon. As she said, there are two types of case: one where a child witnesses abuse and turns against the perpetrator, and the other, where there is a malicious attempt to turn a child against a parent. Abusive behaviour turns children against abusers.
As with many areas of domestic abuse, the issues here are complex, and there are both advantages and disadvantages to the noble Baroness’s amendment. In Committee, my noble friend Lady Brinton quoted from a Ministry of Justice report which cites:
“Fears of false allegations of parental alienation are clearly a barrier to victims of abuse telling the courts about their experiences.”
The domestic abuse commissioner-designate has talked 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.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, said that the justice system needs to be better equipped to deal with these issues. As my noble friend Lady Brinton said, the House will consider in Amendment 44 whether there should be mandatory training, so that magistrates and judges at all levels might be better trained in this and other areas of domestic abuse. I accept that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, thinks that the existing training is adequate but, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, we believe that there should be changes to the training of the judiciary, rather than
“behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship of a child of the parent and the other parent”
being listed as part of the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill. For these reasons, we do not support the amendment.
My Lords, I remind the House that I sit as a family magistrate in central London and regularly deal with these types of cases. I have to say that this has been a better debate than the one we had in Committee. The reason is that many of the speakers showed a greater appreciation of the complexity of these types of cases, which we hear in court. A number of speakers, including those who put their names to this amendment, stated that if the Minister were to make it crystal clear that the term “parental alienation” will be dealt with fully outside of the Bill, then they would think that a good solution to the issue in the amendment. We have also had a number of very eminent lawyers—the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay and Lord Morris, and my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti—clearly say their view is that the amendment is not necessary, as long as the issue itself is addressed elsewhere.
We have had a lot of contributions and I will not go through all the speeches. However, I want to pick up a couple of points noble Lords have made, in particular a contribution by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. He spoke about the distressing and polarising effects of the issue being debated in Committee; I think we have all received a huge amount of lobbying material since then. He also said that he had no doubt that parental alienation exists and that professional organisations such as Cafcass, through its child impact assessment, and the court system try to address the whole range of domestic abuse, including parental alienation.
I want to make one point, which has not been made by any other speaker, and stems from that made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. She summarised it, in a typically succinct way, by saying that the effects on the child are twofold: first, the witnessing, either directly or indirectly, of domestic abuse, which is clearly extremely bad for the child; and secondly, the malicious attempt by a parent to turn the child against the other parent. She has characterised that issue accurately, but I have been sitting as a family magistrate for about eight years now and have seen many cases where a parent has admitted, perhaps through a conviction, that their behaviour means they have committed such abuse. I have seen that many times but never seen a parent admit trying maliciously to alienate the child from the other parent. I have simply never seen a parent acknowledge that they have indulged in such a course of action. The court is of course in a very difficult position, so we move on to the possible use of experts, training for the judiciary and the life experience of magistrates and judges who are dealing with these cases.
I come back to where I opened: there has been a greater acknowledgement by the contributors to today’s debate of the difficulty in making these decisions. Of course, I am in favour of more training—magistrates, lawyers and judges are trained in any event, but more training would be welcome. I hope that the Minister will manage to convince the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, that it is not necessary to press her amendment. I personally believe that the issues she has raised and the intensity of the speeches she has given can be properly met through regulations under the Bill.
My Lords, on this International Women’s Day, I pay tribute to the courage of and thank my noble friend Lady Meyer, and other noble Lords, for their continued engagement on this issue. As pointed out by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, parental alienation clearly proved to be one of the most polarising issues in Committee. He challenged us to focus on the areas of agreement and I will try to do that. It was apposite that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, referred to the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord and said that we had a better debate today than we did in Committee. I agree. We are beginning to develop a shared understanding on where we are trying to get to on this, and to understand what points the amendment is driving at.
My noble friend Lady Meyer has lived experience of this very difficult, deeply distressing and personal issue, and 19 years of campaigning experience to boot in the area of alienating behaviours. I pay tribute to her; in no way do I seek to deny or to minimise the devastating impact that alienating behaviours can have on family life. But we must carefully consider the suggestion that legislation in the form of my noble friend’s amendment is the appropriate response here, and I hope that I can give her comfort on that. I will now outline the aspect of things that I think go to the heart of the Bill and the nub of the point that she is trying to make.
Our approach in Clause 1 is to define domestic abuse by reference to types of abusive behaviours, as pointed out by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and by the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle—although he agrees with the amendment—and not by reference to the form in which those behaviours may be manifested. We are fearful of creating a hierarchy of behaviours by appearing to give more weight to one manifestation than another, and do not—as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay said—wish to inadvertently narrow the Clause 1 definition by giving specific examples such as that proposed by my noble friend in her amendment to Clause 1(5), as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, pointed out. The behaviours to which my noble friend Lady Altmann referred would be in scope; whether the examples she cites would be covered would clearly be a matter for the courts to decide.
As I indicated in Committee, I accept that there are circumstances where alienating behaviours indicate a wider pattern of emotional or psychological abuse. However, where this is the case the definition of domestic abuse in Clause 1—subsections (3)(e) and (5) are particularly relevant, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Brinton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, said—already applies and, as such, does not need to be further expanded.
To answer the question about statutory guidance asked by my noble friend Lady Meyer, and almost all noble Lords who spoke in this debate, the draft statutory guidance covers alienating behaviours. I am very grateful to noble Lords who have already shared their views on the guidance and we welcome further feedback and suggestions for improvement. There will then be a further opportunity to comment on the guidance when we formally consult following Royal Assent.
One of the strengths of the Bill is that it recognises the impact of domestic abuse on children, considering them as victims in their own right. 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 definition of harm in that Act. My noble friend Lady Meyer and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referenced the Cafcass definition of parental alienation. Although that definition supports our shared understanding of the impact of alienating behaviours on the child, it is an important point of clarification that the Cafcass definition is not one of domestic abuse—we need to be clear about that. Cafcass is clear that there are a number of reasons why a child might resist time with, or be hostile towards, one parent following separation or other breakdown of a parental relationship.
I fully accept that the impact of decisions made by the family courts can be life-changing for parents and children, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern illustrated. Any allegations of harm, including alienating behaviours, should be properly and fully scrutinised by the court, as my noble friend Lady Stroud said, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, emphasised. It is for the court to decide child arrangements based on the facts of the case and with the welfare of the child as the key concern.
I listened intently to the testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, about historic court practice. I acknowledge that there is work to be done to improve the court process and particularly to ensure that the system better protects victims of domestic abuse and their children. The Government have already committed to addressing long-standing and systemic issues following the findings of the Expert Panel on Harm in the Family Courts, which the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to. Specific commitments already address a number of suggestions made during the passage of the Bill in relation to this amendment: from the need for updated training and guidance across the family justice system to the importance of enhancing the voice of the child. I can assure my noble friend that there is widespread commitment to system-wide reform in this area.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked what measures are in place to ensure expert witnesses meet practice direction 25b. Under practice direction 25b, experts must comply with the standards set out in the Standards for Expert Witnesses in the Family Courts. I thank the London Victims’ Commissioner for her thorough briefing to Ministers and the President of the Family Division on this. I might add that the domestic abuse protection orders will be available in the family and other courts. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay was quite right to suggest that a DAPO offers a remedy in these cases.
I indicated at the start of my remarks that the Government need to listen to all sides of the debate when coming to a view on matters such as this. My noble friend will be aware that her amendment faces opposition from those representing domestic abuse victims and survivors. The domestic abuse commissioner designate, past and present Victims’ Commissioners, the London Victims’ Commissioner and Women’s Aid are all opposed to this amendment. It is incumbent upon all of us to understand why.
Adding parental alienation to the Bill could allow it to be weaponised by perpetrators of domestic abuse, as I think I have heard noble Lords say. Perpetrators who are not seeing their children because their former partners are trying to keep those children safe could, for example, allege in turn that they are victims of domestic abuse themselves in the form of parental alienation. I am grateful to those who have raised concerns on this point, and I agree that we cannot allow survivors of domestic abuse to be reframed as perpetrators in this way.
We should further be concerned that fear of false allegations of parental alienation already present a barrier to victims telling the courts about their experiences of abuse and those of their children. I note, as other noble Lords and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, have commented, that those experiences are evidenced in the harm panel report published last year. This presents a real and serious risk which runs contrary to the purpose of the Bill.
The Bill seeks to improve our understanding of and response to domestic abuse. Although unintended, including parental alienation on the face of the Bill—in whatever terms it is described—risks silencing survivors of domestic abuse and, worse, risks further harm to survivors and their children. I acknowledge the complexities involved in this debate, but I submit that these risks must be avoided.
While I acknowledge the desire of the noble Baroness and others to include reference to parental alienation in guidance, I hope that, in the light of my explanation—and given that the Bill provides for behaviours that manifest themselves in parental alienation—my noble friend will feel happy to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, first, I would like to thank those who put their names to my amendment: my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, my noble friend Lady Altmann and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. I also thank everybody who spoke today, particularly those who spoke in favour of the amendment. It has been a very interesting debate and I thank everybody for participating.
In the light of the conclusions reached, I now realise that my job has not been done whatsoever. There is still a huge misunderstanding about the point of my amendment and what parental alienation—call it what you like—is about. We are talking not about false allegations but real allegations. We are talking about parents who have been abused by the other parent using the child; this is a terrible form of abuse.
Listen to the London Victims’ Commissioner, who has actually been attacking all the mothers and fathers talking about parental alienation; look at the Twitter war that has been going on; it has been very ugly. I am really hurt that people say that you have to listen to the victims, but they are choosing which types of victims. Hordes of parents, some of whom are probably listening now, have been emailing me and signing letters saying, “Please stand for us”. Their voices are not heard.
I am really disappointed that the Government have not listened and understood what I was trying to do. I understand that some mothers are worried that this could be used against them, but, as everybody has said, the courts could make a decision. The courts obviously need a bit more training but because this issue is so complicated, we also need to involve psychiatrists.
There is a deep misunderstanding about what constitutes an alienated—or whatever term you use—child. Usually, those children have been separated from and have no access whatsoever to one of their parents, and their parent is constantly telling them that the other parent does not love them. Some have even been told that their other parent is dead. In my submission I had letters about people who committed suicide and letters from parents of children who committed suicide.
I hope that, as a minimum, the Minister can guarantee that this issue is going to be addressed in the guidance. More debate and conversations need to take place, because it needs to be understood better. In the light of the evidence before me, I will withdraw my amendment, but I very much hope that something will be done. I will probably come back to this issue because I have fought for it for 19 years and I have still not communicated what it is really about. I think I still have a war ahead of me. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendment 3 not moved.
4: Clause 2, page 2, line 29, at end insert—
“( ) A is a carer for B who is a disabled person.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the amendments at page 2, lines 34 and 37, in the name of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, would bring the relationship between a disabled person and their carer within the definition of “personally connected”.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 4 to Clause 2 I will also speak to my Amendments 5 and 6. These amendments would bring the abuse of disabled people by carers within the scope of domestic abuse under Clause 2. I should mention that I have also tabled Amendments 46 and 47, which would make identical changes in relation to controlling or coercive behaviour under Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. They will be discussed on another day.
I thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and her officials for our recent meeting, which was very helpful in clarifying our mutual concerns, which I will refer to in a moment. Sadly, I have heard nothing further since, so I assume that the Government are not yet convinced that the Bill should include disabled people and carers. I hope that, after hearing today’s contributions, the noble Lord the Minister will commit to return at Third Reading with an alternative clear offer, otherwise I am afraid that I will have no other option than to divide the House.
Amendment 4 has cross-party support. I am grateful to all co-signatories for their advice and backing on this issue, and to many other Members across the House who also wished to be co-signatories. Since Committee I have given the issue a lot of attention, consulting, among others, organisations dealing with disabled victims of domestic abuse. I also sought a legal opinion from lawyers specialising in social care and disability discrimination.
The vast majority of carers are caring, compassionate and utterly loyal. We owe our lives to them—I know I do—but in a small number of cases this is not so. Domestic abuse is not limited to family members or sexual partners. That is what we used to understand by the term; today, we know better. Disabled people of any age can be abused by those on whose care they rely. These relationships often involve an imbalance of power and are just as susceptible to abuse as those between family members or partners. Disabled people may be wholly dependent on another to live an independent and active life, 24 hours a day. That dependency and the trust that it requires makes them an easy target to exploit or abuse.
The Joint Committee on the draft Bill recognised that abuse by carers “mirrors” abuse
“seen in the other relationships covered by this Bill”,
and, importantly, occurs in a domestic setting. It recommended amending Clause 2 to include all disabled people and their carers, paid or unpaid.
Some of our closest and most intimate personal relationships are with those who care for us. Many carers see us naked in the shower, have access to our bank accounts and observe us at our weakest, physically, mentally or emotionally. This can make us feel very vulnerable. They are often privy to things that we do not share even with our family or partners.
I speak from 30 years of personal experience, but not only from that: I am also as a former CEO of the National Centre for Independent Living, working with thousands of disabled people who managed their carers, often termed personal assistants. I remember one haunting example of abuse of a severely disabled man without speech who came to me. He had a communication board that was regularly removed from reach so that his carer was not interrupted. He was too afraid to complain because, as he put it, of the “likely consequences”. Evidence from Stay Safe East and other organisations clearly demonstrates that such abuse continues today.
To deny such people the protection of this Bill would be wholly unjust and discriminatory. The abuse is no different. As the legal opinion says, it is also likely to be unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Article 3 on inhuman or degrading treatment, or Article 8 on respect for private and family life.
If the Government wish to exclude disabled people from the Bill they must show a genuine reason for doing so and for why it is appropriate and necessary. I have not yet heard a convincing explanation. I ask the Minister: who was consulted in the disability sector? I know that government officials spoke to carers and women’s groups. While they are often the primary carers, it is equally important to get the views of those in receipt of care.
The Government’s main objection, indicated in my recent meeting with them, is that including disabled people and their carers “would change the definition”, and while they accepted that the abuse is the same, they felt, in their words, that it was “not domestic abuse as people understand it”. I find this completely bizarre. It is hard to believe that the public would make that distinction. If the abuse takes place at home, in a relationship akin to family members or partners, that is abuse in a domestic setting and warrants the same protection.
The other objection is that it would widen the scope of the Bill too far, including all sorts of carers, such as a friend who does the weekly shop. This completely misses the point. Caring for a disabled person might start with friends or neighbours popping in occasionally, but evidence from Stay Safe East shows that it sometimes develops into an unwanted personal relationship that encroaches on the disabled person’s private life, which the carer then exploits.
So often when disabled people fight for their civil and human rights, we are told that our demands would open the floodgates to unmanageable litigation. It has happened at every stage of the campaign for disability rights legislation. This is not the place to repeat that exercise.
The Government also say that disabled people are already protected from carer abuse, and point to the safeguarding provisions in the Care Act 2014 as the answer to abuse by carers. But Section 42 requires local authorities, where they think there is a risk of abuse, only to make inquiries to see whether action is needed. Many disabled people do not engage with social services safeguarding. Thousands of disabled people employ their own carers or personal assistants and are not touched by social services. It is simply inadequate to protect disabled people and not fit for purpose.
Similarly, Section 20 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, which creates the offence of ill treatment or wilful neglect, applies only to paid carers. It is a higher bar than proving abuse under this Bill. Unlike this Bill, neither of those provisions gives disabled people the means to deal with abuse themselves—they have to rely on others. Nor do they have access to the other benefits of this Bill, such as the new commissioner’s role.
We have an opportunity to make this a truly progressive Bill, one that understands multiple circumstances in which domestic abuse arises. Disabled people have not been well served in recent years, and the pandemic has shone a spotlight on discrimination by indifference. Let us not endorse that again in this Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and to support her in her wish to include carers within the scope of the Bill. As she said, this set of amendments would bring the relationship between a disabled person and their carer, whether paid or unpaid, within the definition of “personally connected”.
As the noble Baroness has said, the Joint Committee on the Bill recommended that carers should be included, after receiving significant evidence from the charity Stay Safe about the level of abuse within these highly personal and close relationships. I remain puzzled as to why the Government are not agreeing to do this. As the noble Baroness said, part of the reason is that the Government believe the group covered by these amendments is fully protected by existing legislation, primarily within social care Act safeguarding measures. However, I challenge that. As Stay Safe East has said, disabled women are three times as likely to experience domestic abuse, and four times as likely to report abuse from multiple perpetrators, as non-disabled women. It does not look as though the safeguarding measures are preventing that. Disabled women are also up to three times as likely to experience domestic abuse at the hands of family members, some of whom will also be their carers. We also know that disabled people also experience abuse from paid and unpaid carers or personal assistants.
The noble Baroness has also referred to the opinion from Bindmans LLP. The summary of their opinion is very clear:
“a. The relationship between disabled people and their carers is analogous to the other relationships which fall within the definition of ‘personally connected’ for the purposes of clause 2(1) of the DA Bill.
b. None of the existing legislation identified by Government provides equivalent protection against domestic abuse for disabled people so as to make it unnecessary for the relationship between disabled people and their carers to be brought within the scope of clause 2(1), and thereby the substantive provisions of the DA Bill.
c. Failing to bring the relationship between disabled people and their carers within the scope of clause 2(1), and thereby the substantive provisions of the DA Bill, is likely to result in unlawful discrimination against disabled people contrary to Article 14 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)”.
If the Minister is relying on existing legislation and safeguarding measures, I am afraid that the evidence is that this is not sufficient. That is the reason why the noble Baroness has argued so persuasively for this amendment, and I very much hope that she presses it to a Division.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, for tabling these amendments, and am grateful for the earlier work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson.
I will start by commenting on the relationship between a disabled person and their carer. It is difficult for someone who is not disabled to understand the intimate nature of that care which has to be given, and the relationship which inevitably builds up, whether the carer is paid or unpaid. The language talks about a “lived experience”, which trots glibly off the tongue, but it is not easy. At best, it is a relationship of trust, where the carer supports and enables the person being cared for to live the life that the disabled person wants to live themselves. But there are some cases where the behaviours of the carer are not beneficial, but are controlling, coercive or physically abuse, yet they fall outside the domestic abuse definition. That is why it is so important that the definition of “personally connected” is recognised. It is such a neat solution, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, has pointed out, it is vital that the definition is similar to the definition in the Serious Crime Act. She is right: they are complementary and will provide consistency and coherence between the Bill and the 2015 Act.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in his excellent speech just now, referred to the excellent work of Stay Safe East. One of the women helped by Stay Safe East said:
“They think just because I’ve got a learning disability, I don’t know it’s wrong to treat me like that. I just want to be safe and live my life.”
Mencap points out that people with learning disabilities can be abused by any type of personal carer, not just in establishments such as Winterbourne View. The problem with private care at home is that often it is not visible at all. That is why these amendments are so important. The Bill needs to understand that the relationship between disabled people and their personal carers is akin to the familial and relationship definitions used elsewhere in domestic abuse legislation.
I hope the Minister will take on board the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and the large number of disabled Peers speaking to her amendments, and the wider community of disabled people who need this protection.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. As International Women’s Day draws to a close, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, for introducing what is surely a practical, common sense set of amendments. She has identified a significant gap in protections for victims of domestic abuse. To her credit, through these amendments, she has also identified an expert and eminently sensible solution. I suggest that we are in her debt for her wisdom, her fortitude and her foresight.
I say that because this is as much about us here today in your Lordships’ House, and those noble Lords watching this debate and contributing to it virtually, as it is about anyone. One has only to consider the average age of noble Lords—well over 50% are aged 70 and above—to realise that we are in fact among those who most urgently need this reform. Lest we are inclined to tell ourselves that this is about “them”, “the other”, “over there”, those whom non-disabled people so often describe as “the disabled”, we should consider these simple facts. According to the World Health Organization, 15 million people have strokes each year worldwide. Of these, 5 million die and another 5 million are permanently disabled. According to the Stroke Association, here in the UK 100,000 people have strokes each year. Stroke strikes every five minutes. In other words, acquiring a severe, incapacitating disability can happen to any of us.
I imagine that most of us would like to believe that this is an issue about which we can perhaps sympathise in a detached way but with which we do not need to concern ourselves too much. On the basis of personal experience and the incident statistics that I have referred to for strokes, I would say the opposite. Nearly three-quarters of strokes occur in people over the age of 65, as are many Members of your Lordships’ House. This amendment is about us.
I appreciate that some noble Lords might be concerned about people making vexatious claims as a result of these amendments. I simply put this question to those who harbour such doubts: if any of us had a stroke later today and in due course found ourselves not only dependent on a carer but also subject to abuse by that carer in our own home, how vexatious would we regard our claim? Surely we would instead be relieved that we had passed this amendment and ensured that essential and equal safeguards had thereby been written into law, for at its heart the reform that these amendments would bring about is rooted in equality.
I suggest to my noble friend the Minister that, with the much-heralded launch of the Prime Minister’s national strategy for disabled people due in the near future, this is a golden opportunity for the Government to show that they get equality. That means ensuring that disabled people are treated with dignity and thereby adequately and equally protected from abuse in the domestic setting. That equal treatment needs to be based on a simple recognition that disability, especially when an impairment makes a disabled person reliant on the carer or personal assistant, also makes them vulnerable to domestic abuse by their carer or personal assistant.
I close, as I began, by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, for giving your Lordships’ House the opportunity to reflect on a simple truth. Yes, this is about equality, no more, no less, yet it is also about each of us, our families, our friends and those whom we love, all of whom I am sure we would wish to see adequately and equally protected in law. That is what this amendment would achieve and it is why I hope that noble Lords will join me in supporting it, should the noble Baroness divide the House, either today or subsequently at Third Reading.
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate on these amendments so well introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, and subsequent speakers, particularly my noble friend Lord Shinkwin.
I feel in many respects vastly underqualified to speak on these amendments. Reading the Committee stage debates, I understood the idea of whether we wanted to extend “personally connected”—I had been putting down something about domestic servants in this regard. However, from listening to the speeches that we have all been privileged to hear, it is apparent that the relationship between a carer and the person for whom they are caring is extremely special and, in many instances, very intimate. It must come under the domestic category. In many cases, probably all cases, it will be happening inside the home, which is the definition of domestic.
The Government may well say that there is sufficient protection elsewhere in the law, but victims of domestic abuse find it difficult to escape, in every sense of the word, from their abusers. Surely for people with disabilities it is impossible to escape. They are often at the mercy of a carer if that carer is abusing. I will listen carefully to the rest of the speeches and of course to my noble friend the Minister, but I find it difficult to understand why these amendments cannot be accepted. I hope that if not now, then by Third Reading, something along the lines of these amendments can be put into the Bill.
My Lords, I am delighted to support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton, to which my name is also attached. I, too, thank Stay Safe for its support in getting the experiences of disabled women into public view. My noble friend and other noble Lords have described the need for the amendments in this group. However, I will reiterate a few points, because there has been much discussion about whether the Domestic Abuse Bill is the correct vehicle to protect disabled people who are victims of domestic abuse. It is a very simple yes.
To say that either the Care Act 2014 or the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 adequately cover disabled people is fundamentally to misunderstand the relationship between a disabled person and their carer, as my noble friend Lady Campbell has movingly explained. It can be a complicated relationship, but that does not give any excuse or reason not to better understand it. I am pleased that there is far more understanding about coercive and controlling relationships, but we need to understand how these relationships affect everyone, including disabled people.
I see this in quite a simple way. Domestic abuse legislation is the correct vehicle because abuse takes place in a domestic setting and the relationship is very definitely intimate—just talk to any disabled person who receives care. Including this here will help with the wider understanding of the scale of the abuse against disabled people, but it is also important for the individuals who are experiencing it, if and when they seek support. I worry that, if disabled people are not included in this legislation, they will fall through the net of reporting and of subsequent support and it will push them into greater peril.
Some might believe that social care provision will protect disabled people through safeguarding procedures. Many disabled people who employ personal assistants or carers do not engage with social services or their safeguarding procedures. There are many reasons for this. Disabled people want independence and choice, but there can be a real fear that, if they go through this process, the assumption is that they will not be able to run their own care package and the direct payments and control may be taken back.
I was trying to think of another comparator. This is not a perfect one, but it could be understood more widely, perhaps, if one thinks of a single mother avoiding social service help because she fears that her children might be taken away or that she might lose personal control of her situation. There is a different debate to be held about the regulation of carers, but the unique situation and the specialised or individualised nature of the support that a disabled person requires mean that carers do not necessarily come into the role regulated, well trained and managed.
The view that disabled people should not be treated differently from non-disabled people is admirable and in most cases I would strongly support it, but we have to recognise that the lived daily experience of disabled people is not equal in our society and there are significant amounts of discrimination. We are a long way from equality. Equity would be ensuring that disabled people were not left behind by this legislation.
I am concerned that the views of disabled people have not been adequately sought in this legislation. I ask the Minister which groups of disabled women have been consulted during this process. Given the significant number of disabled people impacted by domestic abuse, it is imperative that the amendment be accepted.
I am very much looking forward to the new government strategy for disabled people, which I understand is due shortly. If the Government are serious about protecting and supporting disabled people, they should accept the amendment or produce their own version of it. I would be delighted to speak further with the Minister and the Bill team, but if my noble friend decides to test the opinion of the House at any stage, not only will she have significant support but I will metaphorically follow her through the Lobby.
My Lords, I have rarely heard a series of more moving speeches, beginning with that of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton; she always speaks with authority but today she exceeded herself. I was moved too by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, whom I have the privilege of following, and by my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, who spoke with a quiet, intense passion. I hope the Minister will be able to give encouragement.
I have often referred to this Bill, and I have done so again today, as a landmark Bill. If it is to be truly a landmark Bill, it has to be all-embracing. There can be no more sensitive relationship of a domestic nature than that between a disabled person, particularly if we are dealing with a severely disabled person, and those who care for her or him. I feel very strongly that the Bill should include what, in a sense, is the most domestic of all relationships. I have no personal experience but I have vicarious experience: my mother in her last years depended very much upon carers, and so did my wife’s mother in her last years. One sees how that relationship is fundamental to the comfort, indeed the very survival, of those being cared for.
It really is the most appalling abuse of all if a vulnerable disabled person is abused by their carer. We all know that it happens because we have seen instances of relatives having to install video cameras in care homes. We have seen some terrible examples of people in their own homes being abused and taken financial advantage of, and indeed every other sort of advantage, by those upon whom they depend for their very existence.
I very much hope it will not be necessary to divide the House on this issue because I hope the Minister will be able to tell us, if she cannot accept these amendments, that she will come back with her own at Third Reading. There are many honourable precedents for that in our legislation and our legislative process, and it would be sad if the House were divided on a subject on which I am sure we are all fundamentally united: that disabled persons deserve respect, care and consideration and to be protected from any who might transgress in looking after them.
I look forward to my noble friend’s response. I hope it will be sympathetic and empathetic, that the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, will not need to press her amendment to a Division and that at Third Reading we will be able to move forward. I add my name to the question that has already been asked about how many organisations representing disabled people have been consulted during the drawing up of the Bill.
This is a good cause. I hope my noble friend will be able to reassure us and, most of all, disabled people up and down the land when she comes to reply.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow so many eminent speakers. I support these amendments, which have been carefully designed and described by my noble friends Lady Campbell of Surbiton and Lady Grey-Thompson, together with the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport.
We have heard three moving and compelling speeches from experts with lived experience. I thank my noble friend Lady Campbell for the bundle of information she sent ahead of this debate, for her rigour in representing the interests of disabled people and for highlighting that their relationships with non-family caregivers are analogous to the other relationships that fall within the definition of “personally connected” for the purposes of Clause 2(1) of the Bill.
Legal advice has suggested that a failure to bring the relationship between disabled people and their carers within the scope of Clause 2(1) could result in unlawful discrimination against disabled people, contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights when read with Articles 3 and 8. Could the Minister address that point when summing up? I am certain that all Members of the House would wish any anticipated discrimination to be avoided in the drafting of the Bill.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins. I declare an interest as vice-president of Livability.
I very much support the intent in this group of amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, who presented the case so ably at the beginning of this debate. As the parent of a child with a severe learning and physical disability, I know from personal experience the potential risks associated with those who are responsible for the care of disabled persons. In addition, having established a charity responsible for providing care for adults with learning disabilities in the north-east of England called At Home in the Community, I know how sensitive and tense the relationships can be between parents and a disabled son or daughter, between carers and the disabled person and between carers and parents. The frustrations of providing care for a disabled person whose behaviour can be immensely challenging and demanding can boil over, no matter how much they are loved. They can become the innocent third party in abusive relationships and suffer abuse themselves as a consequence.
Sadly, multiple reports over the years have shown that disabled people are much more likely to suffer abuse for longer periods of time. Many individuals are unable to communicate verbally, so identifying abuse can be difficult. Often unable to protect themselves, they can become very isolated and introverted. The vulnerability of their situation can lead to reliance and dependency on the very person being abusive. We had a case within a managed care home of abuse by a hitherto trusted member of staff who manipulated residents over a number of months before detection.
For many residents of care homes, the home they live in is their home. We had cases of individuals whose parents had both sadly died, so their carers and fellow residents were their family. Support in the care sector, whether in a family home or residential care home, relies on the dedication and integrity of mostly—one has to say sadly—low-paid care staff, most of whom are brilliant and support their vulnerable people marvellously. Sadly, however, some do abuse. Drawing attention to this and making provision for it in the Bill is an important step in mitigating it and preventing it from continuing. I hope that the Minister supports this amendment.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Shinkwin and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, who have spoken in favour of these amendments. They seek to ensure that domestic abuse, as defined in Clause 2(1), covers those people who are disabled—and often, perhaps, elderly—as well as all other groups.
Such citizens can be in a deeply intimate yet non-sexual relationship, due to their need for someone to care for them, perhaps in their home. They need someone to care for them just to survive, and so that they can live their life as independently as possible. If these people are abused by someone who helps them in their own home, why would they not be covered in exactly the same way as other groups, including spouses, friends, partners and their children, who currently meet the definition in the Bill?
In this country, there is sometimes a cultural disinclination to talk about or engage closely with the issue of people who need care or who live with disabilities. This may even explain why social care reform is constantly pushed into the proverbial long grass. Yes, this can be a complex subject, and not everybody wants to discuss it, but why would someone who is cared for by another, who may be paid or unpaid, not be entitled to the same protection as a spouse who is abused by their partner? If the Government wish to support people who live in their own home, especially as we have an ageing population, and to be in the community, which disabled or elderly people usually want, developing a strong system of protection for cases of abuse is essential. This landmark Bill is an ideal place to start.
The vast majority of carers are angels. They are heroes, who carry out their demanding and often draining role with compassion, dedication and sensitivity. However, as other noble Lords have explained, there are distressing examples of when they have abused highly vulnerable adults in their care.
I support the rights of disabled people, as I know the Minister does. I know that she cares passionately about this group of wonderful individuals in our society, but I find it difficult to understand why the Government are resisting the inclusion of disabled people within the protections of a Domestic Abuse Bill. Such situations should be placed squarely in the remit covered by this ground-breaking Bill. Is it not time to tackle all cultures of domestic abuse and offer widespread remedies to all citizens? Surely this group should be part of that.
My Lords, I know from my personal family and professional experience of people with learning disabilities that domestic violence can involve both paid and informal carers, including family members. I will not repeat the excellent points made by the noble Lord, Lord Curry. I am very pleased to support my noble friend Lady Campbell and to follow such powerful speeches.
The weakness in the Government’s position is that it underestimates the important similarities between carer relationships and those already in the Bill. It perhaps assumes that local authorities or the CQC will have sight of all carer arrangements, particularly for informal care, but this is just not true. I quote the January Stay Safe East report on discrimination, which says:
“The current definition of domestic abuse has a discriminatory impact on disabled victims of domestic abuse by non-family carers, who have no access to an Independent Domestic Violence Adviser, refuges or other domestic abuse services or to the network of therapeutic and other services open to other domestic abuse victims.”
The exclusion of carers from the definition of “personally connected” not only is blind to the reality of the closeness and complexity of carer relationships but would be discriminatory to disabled people on the receiving end of domestic abuse from carers, because they would be excluded from services. The exclusion fails to recognise that the significant relationships of disabled people may be different from those of non-disabled people. This also applies to people with learning disabilities.
My remaining point has already been made, so I will not take up time with it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow all the speeches already given, because these important amendments close a loophole in our current framework. They do not criminalise carers; let us be clear about that. They simply recognise the reality that, when a person is living in their own home with others coming in to assist with activities of daily living, including the most intimate of care, that person is potentially vulnerable to exploitation. People also need help with indirect activities for daily living as, without this assistance, the person’s environment would rapidly deteriorate. Carers can be closer to and have more power over a person than a person’s family.
The Care Act 2014 Section 10(3) states:
“‘Carer’ means an adult who provides or intends to provide care for another adult (an ‘adult needing care’); but see subsections (9) and (10).”
Then subsection (9) states:
“An adult is not to be regarded as a carer if the adult provides or intends to provide care … (a) under or by virtue of a contract, or … (b) as voluntary work.”
The issue is that those employed, under direct payments or privately, or who exploit a vulnerable person with offers of help and support, are not known to the local authority and it has no authority over them. Even if the local authority becomes aware, Section 42 of the Care Act did not create any new powers to act to protect disabled people from abuse and neglect, merely a duty to make inquiries and to consider exercising existing powers.
This amendment recognises the power differential between the person who is vulnerable and the person coming into their home, on whom they depend and by whom they are being emotionally, psychologically or physically harmed. The person may be frightened and intimidated, not knowing who to turn to, and frightened by threats of all kinds. This is not just mild bullying or cajoling. This is serious, and there needs to be a way to ensure that those who have close and intimate access to the person cannot continue their exploits of mal-intent without serious consequences in law. There is no reason to discriminate against those who are disabled and cannot escape their situation, enduring abuse in their own homes, by leaving them without the adequate protection that this important landmark Bill aims to provide.
As I said, these amendments do not criminalise carers; they criminalise behaviours of mal-intent that cause serious harm—behaviours which are completely unjustified. They are behaviours of abuse behind closed doors in a person’s home by someone on whom they are dependent and personally connected and who has access to the most personal and often intimate aspects of their body and life. Without these amendments, we leave a loophole in protecting those with disability, as so clearly laid out by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and others. I hope the Government will simply accept these amendments as they are, but otherwise I will support a Division.
My Lords, these amendments seek to bring the relationship between a disabled person and their carer within the definition of “personally connected” for the purposes of the Bill, and we support them.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, explained so clearly, as someone who is supported by personal care assistants 24/7, carers often have a close personal connection to the person they are supporting. Although some might find it difficult to imagine that someone would take advantage of someone’s disability, the noble Baroness referred in Committee to the Crime Survey for England and Wales 2018-19, which found that people with long-term illnesses or disability were more likely to experience domestic abuse than those without.
The noble Baroness went on to describe that, in the absence of any close family or friends, carers are considered as welcome substitutes by disabled people who are isolated and feel lonely and anxious. While mostly this is a mutually kind and equitable relationship, on occasions the situation is exploited by the carer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, makes a compelling case. The relationship between some disabled people and their carers can in some ways be even more “personally connected” than that between family members, when one considers the level of personal care provided and the level of intimacy that this involves. She has demonstrated that disabled abuse is a very real issue. She has also explained that she has sought legal advice which confirms that there are legislative gaps that need to be filled. These amendments address those inadequacies and we strongly support them. If the noble Baroness divides the House, we will vote with her.
My Lords, I speak in support of this group of amendments. It is humbling to add my name and be among such a campaigning and dynamic group of Peers. The clause as amended would bring the relationship between a disabled person and their carer within the definition of “personally connected” in Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, in line with the amendments to the definition in Clause 2 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton—who has so powerfully lobbied for this amendment—so that controlling or coercive behaviour by carers is covered by the Section 76 offence.
On the definition of “personally connected”, at Report we continue to believe that the Bill should reflect the realities of all domestic abuse victims who need to be able to access services, justice and support and that no victim should be left behind. These amendments would ensure that “personally connected” also covered a person’s relationship with their carer, whether paid or unpaid.
I spoke of this in Committee and, despite frank and helpful discussions with the Minister and her officials, I remain convinced that these are necessary amendments. They reflect the lived experiences of disabled victims of domestic abuse, where a significant personal relationship in their life is with a person who provides care.
This is a Bill for all victims, and we believe that these amendments would help to ensure that disabled victims are represented in the legislation. We have heard the Government say that the abuse of disabled people by their carers is already covered by existing legislation—Section 42 of the Care Act 2014 places such a duty on local authorities. However, the Bill is flagship legislation—we hear the term time and again—and it should not be the case that disabled victims have to be provided for elsewhere. The unamended clause does not recognise disabled victims of domestic abuse, who are among the most vulnerable.
This type of abuse often goes unnoticed. Disabled victims are more likely to experience domestic abuse for a longer period of time, and the Bill should make it easier for such victims to be recognised. There has to be an understanding and an acceptance of the reality of disabled lives. Significant relationships can be different from those of a non-disabled person with an unpaid carer. 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 either personal care or support with day-to-day tasks or communication is in itself an emotionally intimate act that creates a close bond but also runs the risk of abuse. It is not infrequent for abusers to target the disabled person and befriend them, and persuade them that this is done from an altruistic motivation, while at the same time exploiting and abusing the disabled person. Unfortunately, the news racks are full of such stories. The victim will experience the same ambiguity about power and control versus emotional attachment as any other victim of domestic abuse.
My noble friend Lord Hunt mentioned the organisation Stay Safe East in his authoritative speech. Ruth Bashall, chief executive of that organisation, said of this Bill:
“If this landmark piece of legislation is to protect disabled victims as well as non-disabled victims, we must ensure that abusers are not provided with a cause to claim ‘best interests’ as justification for abusing us … Every year, disabled people are victims of abuse by paid and unpaid carers or personal assistants with whom they have a close relationship but are not family members, and there is very little legislation to protect us.”
I welcome the important issues raised by noble Lords in this group of amendments. I urge the Government to listen to the lived testimony expressed throughout this debate. I support the amendments for inclusion in the Bill.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell of Surbiton and Lady Grey-Thompson, for introducing these amendments that seek to expand the definition of “personally connected” in Clause 2. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to meet them ahead of Report to discuss their amendments.
To answer the question that a number of noble Lords have asked: 3,200 responses were received to the consultation on the Bill and 85% of those responses agreed to our definition in the Bill. We consulted a wide variety of focus groups, which included disability groups; I do not have the list today, but I can try to get it.
These amendments seek to bring all carers under the definition of “personally connected” in the Domestic Abuse Bill. This would include carers who are unpaid, such as neighbours and friends, as well as paid carers and people in a position of trust who care for disabled people.
Let me be absolutely clear: the Government fully recognise that abuse can be perpetrated by carers on the people they care for and that these victims can be especially vulnerable. However, extending the definition of “personally connected” in the context of domestic abuse would have detrimental effects on the overall understanding of domestic abuse and the complexities of the familial and intimate partner relationships that domestic abuse is understood to encompass, where the affectionate emotional bond between the victim and the perpetrator plays a very important role in the power dynamics. By extending the definition to include carers, we would be broadening the definition of “personally connected” to include a much wider range of connections within health and social care settings, which are covered by other legislation, and would confuse the meaning of domestic abuse.
Noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and other proponents of these amendments argue that the relationship between the carer and the person being cared for is an intimate relationship because of the often intimate nature of caring. However, it is important to recognise that different degrees of care are required by different individuals and that not all care relationships can be classed as intimate. Additionally, many care relationships are affected by different power dynamics due to the paid nature of the work that many regulated carers undertake. This would make it inappropriate to class these relationships as domestic abuse, where the emotional interdependency and sometimes financial dependence make it very difficult for a victim to leave a domestic abuse situation.
This would be detrimental to one of the Bill’s overarching aims, namely to raise awareness and understanding of the devastating impact of domestic abuse on victims and their families. This is a domestic abuse Bill and should not be confused with a Bill on abuse in general, or abuse that takes place in a domestic setting. The explanatory report to the Istanbul convention makes clear what is intended by domestic violence or abuse. In its commentary on the term “domestic violence” it says:
“Domestic violence includes mainly two types of violence: intimate-partner violence between current or former spouses or partners and inter-generational violence which typically occurs between parents and children.”
What is proposed by these amendments—however worthy their intent—would mark a fundamental shift away from the objectives of this Bill, necessarily diluting and stretching the focus of the domestic abuse commissioner. We would also have to reset and reassess much of the work we are doing to prepare for implementing the Bill and developing a new domestic abuse strategy. By fundamentally expanding the concept of domestic abuse as used in the Bill we risk a significant delay in its implementation, and I am sure that is not what the House would want.
The Government recognise abuse of disabled and elderly people by their carers. This type of abuse should be called out and tackled, and existing legislation covers it. The Health Survey for England 2019—Providing Care for Family and Friends, which has been mentioned, shows that most unpaid carers were caring for family members. As such, a wide portion of informal care is already covered by the Bill and by Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, where the abuse amounts to domestic abuse.
The Care Act 2014 placed adult safeguarding on a statutory footing for the first time. Under Section 42, local authorities have a duty to carry out safeguarding inquiries if they have reason to suspect that an adult in their area with care and support needs is at risk of abuse or neglect. Importantly, this is the case irrespective of whether that individual’s needs are being met by the local authority.
The care and statutory support guidance defines the different types and patterns of abuse and neglect and the different circumstances in which they might take place. The list provided is not exhaustive but is an illustrative guide to the sort of behaviour that could give rise to a safeguarding concern, such as physical abuse, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, financial or material abuse, modern slavery and discriminatory abuse.
In the almost six years since the Care Act was introduced, we have seen a steady increase in the number of concerns raised, as well as the number of inquiries made under Section 42. This demonstrates that the legislation is having an impact. Data from 2019-20 covering concluded Section 42 inquiries where a risk was identified showed that, in nearly 90% of cases, the outcome was reported to have either removed or reduced the risk to the individual.
Additionally, the Government have made clear in the accompanying statutory guidance that, under the Care Act regarding the duty on local authorities, they must ensure that the services they commission are safe, effective and of high quality. All relevant professions are subject to employer checks and controls, and employers in the health and care sector must satisfy themselves regarding the skills and competence of their staff. Furthermore, the Care Quality Commission plays a key role, ensuring that care providers have effective systems to keep adults safe and ensure that they are free from abuse and neglect. They have 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. Lastly, safeguarding adults boards provide assurance that local safeguarding arrangements and partners, including police, councils and the NHS, are acting to help and protect adults who may be at risk of abuse or neglect.
There is additional legislation that can be used to protect vulnerable adults from abuse outside the scope of domestic abuse, such as Sections 20 and 21 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, through which 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. Crucially, ill-treatment refers to the conduct of the offender irrespective of whether it damaged or threatened to damage the health of the victim.
Part 1 of the Bill does not create a new offence of domestic abuse, and many of the criminal behaviours underlying domestic abuse will continue to be pursued in the courts through other legislation such as the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which makes common assault an offence, as well as the Offences against the Person Act 1861, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and the Fraud Act 2006. Importantly, where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim’s disability, this is a hate crime and can lead to increased sentences under Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Additionally, there are civil remedies, such as restraining orders, that can be used by victims.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and another noble Lord—I cannot quite recall who it was—talked about not making the amendment breach Article 14 of the ECHR. We do not think that not including carers in the definition of “personally connected” within the context of domestic abuse amounts to a violation of that article. The Domestic Abuse Bill sets out to protect those who are in intimate and family relationships and who are subject to physical, emotional, psychological or other abuse, which is what is understood by most to be domestic abuse.
In conclusion, while I acknowledge the spirit in which these amendments are intended, I hope that noble Lords will accept the importance of retaining domestic abuse as an internationally recognised distinct form of abuse. As I have indicated, were the amendments to be added to the Bill, they could significantly set back our work on implementing it. It is right that, where a disabled person is abused by a carer who is not an intimate partner or family member, this is called out and that there are remedies available. I hope that I have been able to reassure the House that such remedies and protections exist. I very much hope that I have been able to persuade the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, to withdraw her amendment. If she does divide the House I would ask noble Lords to consider carefully, before voting, the ramifications of these amendments for the Bill, for its implementation and for our shared endeavour to tackle the scourge of domestic abuse as it is commonly recognised in the Istanbul convention and elsewhere.
My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for her reply, although I am deeply disappointed. I thank all noble Lords for their support and their powerful application of the issues I tried to address in my contribution, which explained the aims of this amendment. I have been on a long journey of learning and studying since Committee. I have talked to lawyers, disabled people and many Members across the House.
Support for disabled people in the UK has rightly evolved over the years from a “carer knows best” approach to supporting individuals to take control of their lives in the community. This means that some disabled people now feel more able to speak out about some of the horrendous abuses they have suffered at the hands of their carers within the domestic home. This was ably put by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and others. It is not comfortable to acknowledge, as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, acknowledges. It is not comfortable to think about the domestic abuse of disabled people within the intimate setting of the home—but it takes place. Acknowledge it we must, and we must develop a solid way to address it.
The Bill is perfectly placed to acknowledge this kind of domestic abuse. It is a landmark Bill that would not put disabled people in the ghetto of social care. I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Randall, now understands more about why I pressed for the inclusion of disabled people and carers in the Bill, and I am glad he has changed his mind somewhat. I had wished the same from the Government today, but the reply indicates to me that they simply do not understand the nature of domestic abuse experienced by disabled people, which fits classically within the definition of this Bill.
I do not want to rehearse my replies to the Government, because that would take up too much valuable time, but, in answer to the accusation that the amendment would dilute the focus of the Bill and the work of the commissioner, I will say that that argument is very spurious. It will not dilute this Bill; it will strengthen it, because it will include those who are, at this moment in time, being domestically abused because they rely on another human being for their care. We rely totally on carers, as we would on a mother, a father or a partner.
So I do feel I need to test the opinion of the House, because I do not agree with the excuses given tonight. The answers I have given throughout my amendment speech, and the other speeches this evening, show why it is perfectly adequate and practical to have this included in the Bill. It would not dilute the focus or understanding of the Bill: no, it would enrich them. So I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Amendments 5 and 6
5: Clause 2, page 2, line 34, at end insert—
““carer” means an adult who provides care, whether paid or unpaid;” Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement for the amendment at page 2, line 29 in the name of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton.
6: Clause 2, page 2, line 37, at end insert—
““disabled person” means a person who has a disability within the meaning of section 6 of the Equality Act 2010 (disability);”Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement for the amendment in the name of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton at page 2, line 29.
Amendments 5 and 6 agreed.
7: Clause 3, page 3, line 3, after “abuse,” insert “including in utero exposure,”
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 7 and the corresponding group in my name. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Armstrong and Lady Finlay, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for their support for these amendments.
I also thank my noble friend the Minister for her time since we last debated these amendments in Committee. As we spoke, I was encouraged by her deep commitment to ensure that the Bill provides protection for all children—whether they be in utero, newly born or on the cusp of adulthood. I am hopeful today to receive assurance that guidance will protect these children. I thank all noble Lords who offered their support and feedback on our initial amendments as we worked towards finding a nuanced pathway that would ensure that the Bill does in fact protect all children but does not open up a legal minefield.
Why are these amendments needed? We know that around 30% of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy, while 40% to 60% of women experiencing domestic abuse are abused during pregnancy. These are horrific statistics. Alongside this, we know that 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, so here we see high vulnerability to abuse and violence coupled with essential days for child development colliding and creating a unique environment that needs protection.
Domestic abuse in pregnancy is associated with poor obstetric outcomes, including low birth weight and preterm birth. A mother’s emotional state can have a direct influence on foetal development by altering the environment in the womb, and ongoing stressors such as domestic abuse can disrupt babies neuro-development. This can affect children’s cognitive functioning and emotional regulation, shaping behavioural and emotional outcomes for years to come. We also know that the sad truth is that the single best predictor of children becoming either perpetrators or victims of domestic violence later in life is whether they grew up in a home where there was domestic violence. These amendments seek to break this cycle and allow for early intervention, which can have life-changing outcomes for victims.
So what needs to happen and what can these amendments do? The amendment to Clause 3 would ensure that professionals take in utero exposure into account when identifying children as victims of domestic abuse. The amendment to Clause 7 relates to the general functions of the commissioner and would ensure that identifying children affected by domestic abuse also includes babies in utero. The addition of a new clause after Clause 72 would require the Secretary of State to
“make provision for publicly-funded traumainformed and attachment-focussed therapeutic work to be made available to all expectant parents and parents of children aged under two years old where those children are victims of or otherwise affected by domestic abuse.”
The amendment to Clause 73 would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance on the effects of domestic abuse on babies who were in utero at the time of the abuse and on babies and young children under the age of two.
These amendments and what they represent are crucial. As the Bill stands, there is a requirement that the commissioner must “encourage good practice” in identifying people who carry out domestic abuse, victims of domestic abuse and children affected by domestic abuse. My amendment would mean that encouraging good practice in identifying children affected by domestic abuse must include the unborn child by reaching out to pregnant women to offer support relating to domestic abuse, and by being alert to the need to offer support and safeguarding to the child post birth if necessary.
The addition of a new clause focused on trauma-informed support is about access to support for parents. The Bill will be ineffective if there is no provision for people to get the help they want and need. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver 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. It is therefore essential that they have access to support that can actually change behaviour.
An evaluation of the For Baby’s Sake programme, which provides trauma-informed and attachment-focused therapeutic support for parents, led by King’s College London, found that support at this time can harness parents’ motivation and empower them to make changes for their babies and themselves. A SafeLives report highlights that 80% of victims have told us that they think that interventions for perpetrators are a good idea. A main conclusion from Breaking Down the Barriers, the 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. It is essential that we make this provision.
As the Bill stands, there is a requirement that the Secretary of State issues guidance about the effects of domestic abuse on children. The amendment to Clause 73 would ensure that the unborn child is included in that guidance to make sure that they are visible.
The protections that would be created by these amendments are needed because we know that the first 1,001 days of a child’s life are an opportune time for intervention and the best time for breaking the cycle. Pregnancy and childbirth are major milestones in the lives of many mothers and fathers and a time when there is the most motivation to change.
Although this is not a gendered issue, the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, in conjunction with For Baby’s Sake, found that intervening in the perinatal period may prevent early childhood trauma and its consequences. 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.
There is much that is good in this Bill and much that we can be proud of that has already been done to increase the protections for many. However, we have an opportunity to go just that bit further and to be crystal clear that it is our intention to protect all children, including those aged under two and during pregnancy. It is essential that we get this right. I understand that legislation may not be required to achieve this goal and hope to receive assurances from my noble friend the Minister of what may be achieved through guidance. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for leading on this important aspect of domestic abuse, clearly laying out the high incidence of abuse when a woman is pregnant and the many harms associated with it. I declare that I chair the Commission on Alcohol Harm. Some 25% to 50% of domestic abuse offences are fuelled by alcohol. The Good Childhood Report in 2017 found that 39% of children living with a parent or carer with problematic alcohol use were also living in households where there had been domestic violence in the past five years. That is almost three times the comparable rate in the rest of the sample.
Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder—FASD—describes the permanent impact on the brains and bodies of individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol. This can result in physical, emotional, behavioural and neurological characteristics that are all related to prenatal—interuterine—exposure to alcohol. At least 7,000 babies are born every year in the UK with FASD, although recent research suggests that the true incidence may be sixfold to 17-fold higher. Misdiagnosis as attachment disorders or autism is frequent.
Alcohol is a teratogen which can cause any type of physical malformation and learning and behavioural challenges. These children often need support with motor skills, physical health, learning, memory, attention, emotional regulation and social skills as well as the management of any congenital abnormalities. More than 70% of children with FASD are known to care services, often raised by foster or adoptive parents or kinship carers. The true cost of abuse is paid by the child lifelong and by society, not by the abuser.
This condition is preventable only when there is no prenatal alcohol exposure. That is why, in 2016, the Chief Medical Officer recommended that no alcohol be consumed in pregnancy and when planning one. After birth, the abuse of alcohol is associated with parental neglect and ongoing abuse in the home. When I was a GP, I worked with Strathclyde on the medical screening of children at the time of admission to care. Many of these children had been damaged before their lives had started and were further damaged from day one.
We know that, during the pandemic, domestic abuse has increased and domestic alcohol consumption has increased. Are we sitting on another epidemic that is about to emerge—that of FASD in a generation who are soon to be born? We cannot protect from FASD those who have already been born, but we can lessen the chance of further damage and protect those who come after them. That is the aim of these amendments.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 7, 8, 9, 78 and 90, which I support. Naming babies and the unborn in the Bill should lead parents to get the help that they need at a crucial time; otherwise they are in danger of remaining invisible when it comes to public policy. In the lockdown, as has been said, the hidden harms experienced by those under two years were sadly extensive. It should be stated that the definition of children does not recognise the unborn as victims. The amendment to Clause 3 is necessary to have in the Bill that a victim of domestic abuse includes a child who experiences the effects of the abuse, including in utero exposure, as there is good evidence for this latter harm, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, mentioned. The amendment to Clause 7 is important to stipulate comprehensively the duties of the commissioner to avoid any doubt whatever. The new clause after Clause 72 is required to ensure provision for all expectant parents and parents of children under two years where those children are victims of domestic abuse.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for leading on these amendments, with the aim of highlighting the impact of domestic abuse on babies, including exposure in utero, and to meet the needs of babies and parents in the first 1,001 days before babies reach the age of two. We know that domestic abuse often starts or escalates during or soon after pregnancy and that it is correlated with other risk factors for babies and their families. Domestic abuse during pregnancy is associated with poor obstetric outcomes and is a strong risk factor for ante-natal and post-natal depression. We now know that a mother’s emotional state can have a direct influence on foetal development. I remember being shocked the first time that I saw the brain scans of such children, only visible to us as researchers in the last 20 years. The ongoing stress of domestic abuse can disrupt babies’ neurodevelopment, which in turn can adversely affect behaviours and emotional outcomes.
My noble friend Lady Finlay has outlined the issues relating to alcohol and domestic abuse so ably that I will not repeat her arguments, but I declare my support for her analysis. Early intervention is crucial for babies born into such circumstances, to support and work with families to break traumatic development cycles. The Institute of Health Visiting is strongly supportive of these amendments, to safeguard against, prevent and address the traumatic impact of domestic abuse on babies.
My noble friend Lord Bird often reminds us that investment of the public pound early in any abused child’s development is a far better investment than significant input in later life. These amendments are designed to address what has been described as the “baby blind spot”. I urge the Minister to seriously consider these amendments and support their incorporation into the Bill. They are designed to safeguard the early development of all babies and to provide therapeutic intervention to empower parents who have experienced abuse themselves to break the cycles of domestic abuse, surely something that we would all support.
My Lords, I support Amendments 7, 8 and 9, tabled by my noble friend Lady Stroud. Why? Because unborn children and small babies are as much at risk of domestic abuse as any other child, yet they have been largely excluded from this Bill. There seems to be no specific reference to them.
A very recent research paper published by the First 1001 Days Movement highlighted the fact that there are “baby blind-spots” in policy, planning and funding, where protections for children often do not work for babies. As my noble friend Lady Stroud mentioned, 30% of domestic abuse cases begin during pregnancy. That is a big number, but it is hardly surprising.
The prospect of having a child radically changes the dynamic in a relationship. The partner is suddenly faced with new responsibilities, both financial and emotional. Maybe the pregnancy was never discussed and comes as a complete surprise. The partner may feel duped or resentful, trapped in a relationship he never intended.
As we have heard throughout these debates, domestic abuse can take many forms. But just imagine how it feels when, at your weakest and most vulnerable point—which is how most women feel when pregnant—you are confronted by a partner intent on abusing you. When I was pregnant with my sons, I remember worrying that somebody would bump into me on the tube or I would fall and somehow injure that little being growing inside of me. I used to walk with my arms in front of me, shielding my stomach and my unborn child; it is a mother’s natural instinct. Imagine how frightened and helpless a mother must feel if her partner is a constant threat, not only to her but to her baby.
I remember my mother telling me when I was pregnant that I should only read happy stories, watch cheerful movies and listen to soft music. She strongly believed that the child absorbed everything its mother experienced and that this would affect the child’s development. Today it is an established fact that a baby’s development is as much affected by the mother’s emotional state as by what she eats and drinks, as we heard earlier.
As the First 1001 Days Movement attests, these are decisive moments in the life of a baby. Emotional abuse of the mother can damage the mental or physical health of the child, while physical or sexual abuse can lead to miscarriage. These soon-to-be-born human beings cannot be consigned to the category of “out of sight, out of mind”. If this is to be a piece of landmark legislation, our duty is that much greater to ensure that it recognises babies, the very young and the unborn. That is why I support the amendment.
My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group. I declare my interests as an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Conception to Age Two, and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, I have the privilege of being a member of Andrea Leadsom’s taskforce. We will be producing our findings imminently. I did not speak in Committee because, frankly, I thought I would leave it to people who know rather more about it than myself, including many contributors who have given birth. While I am capable of many things, that is one thing I am not capable of.
I studied the Minister’s answer in Committee very carefully and was not hugely impressed, so I was intending to stand up this afternoon and be slightly critical. However, I have had a quiet word beforehand with the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and in the Chamber one has a great advantage: I was able to see the body language of the Minister when the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, was making some comments, and it was extremely positive. I do not think those of us in the virtual world can see that—one of the benefits and privileges of being in the Chamber. Having studied the answer very carefully, I thought that what came out of it was something that concerns me and is worth flagging up.
The Minister tried to reassure us that all children will benefit from the Bill and that new guidance, which may be issued by the Secretary of State—it does not have to be—will cover all children, including those in utero. She then talked about the existing guidance which has been in place for some time. The Working Together to Safeguard Children initiative makes it clear that local authorities must have protocols in place to assess the needs of children in utero. She also specifically mentioned Section 47 inquiries under the Children Act 2004, which allow for a child protection conference if there are concerns for an unborn child.
I decided to do a bit of investigation as to how well the existing guidelines have been working. As we have heard, and many people have said, 30% of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy. In 2018 the Children’s Commissioner produced her report, A Crying Shame, which indicated that there were 8,300 babies under the age of one living in problem households. As a follow-on from that, there was an estimate that over 30,000 children under the age of five live in high-risk households but are not on child protection plans, including 3,300 babies under the age of one. That is indeed a baby blind spot.
The existing guidance, which has been on the statute book or in guidance for several years, clearly is not protecting all the children and babies in utero that it is designed to protect. We have to learn from this. I am hoping and anticipating that what the Minister says will be very positive; I take it from some of the allusions to what she may say that it will reinforce and put in place much clearer guidance.
The Minister and I have spoken on many occasions about the importance of accurate data to inform good decisions and to identify best practice, and I ask that we learn from the fact that the current guidance and laws are not working as they are intended to. As we move into the next phase, with, I hope, reinforced guidance, I hope that we look back at what has not been, and is not, working with the current guidance and, with the help of the domestic abuse commissioner, ensure that this time we do a great deal better. On that optimistic note, I will sit down.
My Lords, I speak to the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady Stroud, because I fully support the essence of what she is trying to do.
This is supposed to be a landmark Bill and hopefully by the end of all the proceedings we will have one. But there are still some gaps within it, which a lot of noble Lords have already spoken about; I do not want to duplicate what they have said in the interest of time.
Many people I have seen, including domestic abuse survivors and their families, have talked about pregnancy and what happens when they are in a domestic abuse environment. It seems shameful, in a sense, to be talking about the unborn child in a way that has to justify a life that is going to be born, which we all wish was going to be in a healthy, happy environment.
For any relationship, having children is a very pressurised situation—it is the unknown. To be in a relationship and to be pregnant where there is more and more domestic abuse must be even more horrendous for a mother, taking each blow and each verbal insult. The unborn baby does hear what is going on in its surroundings. As my noble friend Lady Meyer has already mentioned, playing music to an unborn baby has an impact when the baby is born, so we have to understand what that child is listening to before it is born.
I am very grateful for the For Baby’s Sake briefing, The First 1001 Days, to which a number of noble Lords have referred. I hope that the Minister will reflect again. The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, suggested looking at the guidance. As a former Victims’ Commissioner, I struggle with guidance, because it impacts on the delivery of a good service to protect the unborn child and its future life.
Exposure to domestic abuse in the first 1,001 days of life is associated with adverse outcomes, including poor mental and physical health, lower academic achievement and impaired social development. Although we know that this is a significant risk to the safeguarding of a child, we seem to wait and address the root cause only when they go into criminality. If these amendments are agreed or if we can have functional guidance, that young person will have a better, more protective and healthier environment, and at a lower cost to the state.
Domestic abuse can affect a parent’s ability to provide consistent, sensitive caregiving. It is particularly relevant for parents who themselves did not receive this level of caregiving. In fact, I am concerned that we are not seeing enough health visitors visiting families who so desperately need help and support once the baby is born. What is happening before that baby is born?
I will pose a scenario that was in one of the reports. There is a baby blind spot in what we are trying to do for the unborn child and, previously, to help the parents. Being a baby or a toddler was a lockdown risk factor in its own terms. Those who were exposed to other risk factors in addition could be considered as being subject to double jeopardy.
I am not sure there has been any thinking about the baby’s needs. As the report highlighted, we hear a lot about school age children—thankfully, today marks the first day of them going back to some kind of pattern—and parents working from home. But it is so sad that little has been said about babies’ needs. That is a quote from a practitioner. Families will be going out today, hoping to function and to create a safe environment.
So will the Minister please reflect and look at this to ensure that we have rigorous guidance, that we close the gaps and that we listen to the Children’s Commissioner and the domestic abuse commissioner? Let us make this a landmark Bill to protect both adults and the unborn child, so that we can create a healthy environment in which they can go on to lead healthier lives.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, has summarised some of the extensive research which associates abuse—including emotional abuse—of mothers during pregnancy with resulting poor outcomes for the child. What happens to children in utero may affect them for the rest of their lives and cause longer-term developmental delays and both mental and physical health problems, and may even lead to criminality.
My noble friend Lady Finlay has also pointed, quite rightly, to the role of alcohol. As the noble Lord, Lord McColl, suggested, opposition to Amendments 7, 8, 9 and 90 may be because the unborn child is not afforded the same rights as a newborn child. Indeed, an unborn child is bestowed with few rights, so it does not seem to make sense to include them in this Bill. Or, if the mother is the victim of domestic abuse, she will be in scope of the provisions of the Bill in any case, therefore the amendments would have little effect because the child affected by domestic abuse during pregnancy is not perceived as a victim.
It is important that we recognise the effects of domestic abuse on children, in order that we can intervene at a young age and act to mitigate some of the harms that will flow from domestic abuse. The Government’s amendments recognising this are welcome. However, in the same spirit and in the spirit of consistency, the scope of this Bill should include children in utero, because the rationale is much the same as for other children and it would be a significant blind spot to exclude them.
I turn now to Amendment 78 and the duty to provide therapy for new parents. I consulted my daughter, who is a psychiatrist specialising in parent/infant mental health. We know a great deal about the importance of early caregiver relationships on a child’s developmental trajectory, attachments and physical health. This amendment is about targeted early intervention and the mitigation of domestic abuse-associated future harms. All children need sensitive and responsive parents who are emotionally available and can help them feel safe and understood.
The priority for treatment is to treat, reduce and prevent parental conflict with accessible therapeutic interventions and practical support for families. Therapies and couple interventions to consider include video interaction guidance, child/parent psychotherapy, Hold Me Tight and OnePlusOne and, in complex situations, the NSPCC’s UK programmes, LIFT and GIFT. Family-based therapy with children should always be considered, when possible, although it is no replacement for other kinds of general parenting support. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, mentioned the importance of health visiting. This seems to be much less available today than it was when I had my children many years ago.
I strongly support all the amendments in this group and hope that they will bring new opportunities to really respect the Conception to Age 2 manifesto and work, and all the other initiatives concerned with the health and well-being of babies in utero and infants.
My Lords, I strongly support Amendments 7, 8, 9, 78 and 90. We have heard the very informed opinions of my brethren, including the ladies, about the dangers that exist at the beginning of life, including the time that a child is in utero, from the effects of domestic abuse surrounding them.
It is very important to remember that the idea of putting something in guidance depends on whether it is already included in the statute. Guidance cannot extend the scope of the statute and I think that these amendments are really concerned with the legal necessity of having these beginning-of-life children in the statute. Therefore, I support them very strongly because I think it is generally assumed that they need to be looked after and that looking after them involves a degree of involvement that is essential for success.
My Lords, I am going to be very disciplined in this Bill—some people may say that that is a bit unusual for me—and speak only to those things that are not part of the criminal justice system. I am concerned that overall the Bill has been dominated by the criminal justice system, and most of the women I have worked with for many years want problems to be sorted before it is necessary to go to court, because things really have failed once it gets that far. That is why I was really pleased to support the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, in these amendments, because they are about early intervention and, in terms of domestic abuse, about how we prevent it and how we break that cycle.
Noble Lords have heard the detail of what happens to the development of the child and its brain if the parents are not in a state to nurture and support the child effectively. It is interesting to look at the work done by the charity For Baby’s Sake and the Family Nurse Partnership. Parents will say that they did not realise the effect on their unborn child of what they ate and drank and what substances they abused. For example, in the evaluation of For Baby’s Sake a father is quoted as saying that:
“Doing this programme made me realise I was very controlling without realising.”
That had been his experience throughout his childhood.
“To me it was normal.”
We have a position where people behave in a violent and abusive way and they think it is the norm. We need to give children experiences which are not dominated by abuse and controlling behaviour. A mother said that being involved in trauma-informed work allowed her to heal and come to know herself. She said that it had given her the confidence to be a good mother.
We know the effect on the unborn child and very young children of this sort of abusive, neglective, difficult behaviour. The facts are now well known and other speakers have gone through them carefully. We have known this sort of thing for at least 20 years. I understand why the Minister is reluctant about the amendments; it is because she wants to get the Bill through. But we know how to effectively support parents so that their pregnancy is safer and more healthy for the unborn child. We know how to support new parents to be parents who do not rely on violence and abuse for sorting things out and who learn how to work with their children in a much more positive and effective way. I ask the Minister to think about that.
We know what to do; we know that we can prevent years and years of abuse. We know what will happen if a child is subjected to this in the womb and in the early years. Why can the Minister not commit tonight to saying that the Government have learned these lessons and are going to invest in that sort of early intervention? I know that money is tight, but the Minister might make the argument, in her department and with the Ministry of Justice, that spending money on five new prisons for women is not a good use of it. If they put that money into supporting women at this early stage when they are first having their children, the long-term effect on the lives of families in our communities will be much more substantial than more prison places, which do not do anybody any good.
My Lords, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and other noble Lords who have spoken so knowledgeably, as probably became apparent in Committee, children and babies are not my area of expertise, apart from being a mother and a grandmother myself—so that is one small qualification greater than the noble Lord, Lord Russell. In Committee, I learned a lot of shocking facts about the damage that babies can suffer even before birth as a result of domestic abuse. I was shocked to learn that nearly a quarter of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke about the role of foetal alcohol disorder: another issue that can just make the situation even more terrible.
Pregnancy can bring a great strain into a relationship for many reasons—financial strain for one and impending change for another. The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, gave several examples of such strains. Much attention is, deservedly, given to the mother during and after pregnancy, but, until recently, the father had been regarded as more peripheral, less involved, a bit of a spare part. This has changed in recent years, I know, but there is still plenty of opportunity for resentment to develop.
However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, said, new fatherhood can be a great motivator for change. That is why this time would be an ideal opportunity to lavish some attention on the father and big up his role and importance. It is an ideal time for perpetrator strategies to be put in place. Can the Minister update the House on how this opportunity to implement perpetrator strategies could be exploited within the existing remit of the health service?
I am not sure we need to change the law for that—and for the other good practice mentioned in this suite of amendments—to happen, although the noble Lord, Lord McColl, believes that a baby in utero does not qualify as a victim. Can the Minister confirm exactly what the Government’s view is?
Amendment 78 requires the Secretary of State to supply the funding for trauma-informed and attachment-focused therapeutic work for the parents of all little victims. The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, emphasised the importance of early intervention.
Amendments 8 and 9 seek to ensure that babies in utero will be covered in the Bill’s provisions. The amendments’ supporters made a strong case for that in Committee, citing harrowing examples of the potentially lifelong damage which can be done before a child is even born. I would welcome the Minister’s assurances that these victims—in utero as well as post birth—will be covered by the Bill’s provisions. Several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, talked about the baby blind spot. We must consider the baby’s needs, and I hope that the baby blind spot does not apply to this Government.
My Lords, when, initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, these issues were debated in Committee, the Government argued 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. The Government said that they recognised that pregnancy can be a trigger for domestic abuse and that existing abuse may get worse during pregnancy or after giving birth.
The Government went on to say in Committee that the statutory guidance made clear that local authorities, with their partners, had a responsibility to develop clear local protocols for assessment, and that these protocols should reflect where assessments require particular care and include unborn children where there are concerns. Further, the Government said that if there are concerns relating to an unborn child, consideration should be given to whether to hold a child protection conference prior to that child’s birth, with decisions regarding the child’s future safety, health and development made at that conference.
The Government concluded their response in Committee by saying they were committed to protecting all children, including the very youngest, from the heinous crime of domestic abuse. There have since been further discussions. We agree that pregnant women, unborn children and young children need access to support and protection. I look forward to the Government, in their response, giving further meaningful assurances that this will be the case.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Stroud for affording us the further opportunity to debate the impact of domestic abuse on very young children and unborn babies. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, made an important point about alcohol as a trigger for domestic abuse and the effect of alcohol on an unborn child, which is part and parcel of this. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, made a point about preventive measures being so important in our aim of protecting victims or potential victims of domestic abuse.
Amendment 7 to Clause 3 seeks to recognise unborn babies exposed to domestic abuse in utero as victims of domestic abuse. Amendments 8 and 9 to Clause 7 seek to explicitly provide for the domestic abuse commissioner to encourage good practice and provide protection and support to children under the age of two, including unborn babies, affected by domestic abuse. Amendment 78 seeks to make provision for publicly funded therapeutic services for expectant parents and parents of children under the age of two who are victims of domestic abuse. Finally, Amendment 90 seeks to make explicit reference to unborn babies and children under two in the statutory guidance to be issued under Clause 73.
Under Clause 3, children of all ages, from birth to the day that they turn 18, are considered victims of domestic abuse in their own right if they see, hear or experience the effects of domestic abuse and are related either to the targeted victim of the abuse or to the perpetrator. As such, all children will benefit from the provisions in the Bill. For example, Part 2 expressly recognises the impact of domestic abuse on children in the statutory functions of the domestic abuse commissioner. Part 4 of the Bill places a new duty on tier 1 local authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children within safe accommodation. This would include the kind of support referred to in Amendment 78. In addition, Clause 73(2) provides that the Secretary of State must issue guidance on the
“kinds of behaviour that amount to domestic abuse”
and on the effect of domestic abuse on all children.
Separate to the provisions in the Bill, there are important existing measures in the Children Act 1989 to protect children at risk of harm. These include Section 8 of that Act, which makes provisions for child arrangement orders regulating arrangements relating to when a child is to live, spend time with or otherwise have contact with any other person, and whom. Section 17 sets out the provision of services for children in need, their families and others. Part V sets out measures for the protection of children, including in Section 43 on child assessment orders; Section 44 on orders for the emergency protection of children; and Section 47, which sets out the local authority’s duty to investigate when it suspects that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm.
Given these provisions, I am confident that the needs of all children, including babies and toddlers, who are victims of domestic abuse are already well embedded in the Bill and elsewhere. As a result, I do not think it necessary or appropriate to extend the provisions in Clauses 3, 7 and 73 to cover babies in utero. Our aim is to ensure that pregnant women who are victims of domestic abuse and children who are victims of domestic abuse secure the support and protection they need.
To come to the substantive point of my noble friend’s amendment, the Government recognise that pregnancy can be an especially vulnerable time for women, and that pregnancy or the birth of a child can be a trigger for domestic abuse or for the escalation of existing abuse. A number of noble Lords outlined some of the points here. I have mentioned that the guidance issued under Clause 73 was published in draft last year. This made express reference to pregnancy as a risk factor that can make women more vulnerable, during what is already a terribly precarious time for some.
Since the publication of the draft, Home Office officials have engaged extensively with a range of front-line practitioners, including convening a working group specifically focused on health earlier this year. I know that officials have engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, including maternity and early years specialists and service providers. Experts from the Royal College of Midwives, as well as those with academic and sector expertise, outlined how we could improve the references to pregnancy, as well as include specific references to the unborn and the impact of domestic abuse. We will consult on an updated draft of the guidance following Royal Assent, where there will be yet further opportunity for specialist organisations—and, indeed, noble Lords—to provide feedback. That goes back to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, made about data and best practice informing our approach.
As I have indicated, all expectant mothers are covered by the provision of services for domestic abuse victims, and social workers will consider the safety of unborn children through assessments and child protection conferences, as set out in statutory guidance called Working Together to Safeguard Children. Local authorities and all safeguarding agencies are required by the Children Act 2004, and other enactments under which the guidance is issued, to have regard to this statutory guidance. It is important to acknowledge that the guidance sets out that local authorities, with their partners, have a responsibility to develop clear local protocols for assessment. These protocols should reflect where assessments for some children will require particular care, including unborn children where there are concerns.
Following a Section 47 inquiry under the Children Act 1989, if there are concerns that relate to an unborn child, consideration should be given to whether to hold a child protection conference prior to the child’s birth. An initial child protection conference brings together family members, supporters, advocates and practitioners to consider all relevant information and how organisations and agencies can work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child.
The Government are also aware and have been long-standing supporters of a great scheme called Operation Encompass, which created an information-sharing protocol between police and schools following a domestic incident. Operation Encompass has launched a pilot of this scheme in Greater Manchester for children under the age of five. Under this pilot, any information is shared by the police with health visitors following a domestic abuse incident that involves children under the age of five, and where a woman is expecting. We are working very closely with Operation Encompass to monitor the outcome of that pilot.
The Government are committed to protecting all children, including the very youngest, from the heinous crime of domestic abuse, and we continue our work in this area to ensure that this is achieved. I know that my noble friend will join me in welcoming Andrea Leadsom’s early years healthy development review. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, on being involved in it. It has been examining the first 1,001 days of a baby’s life—that is, from conception to the age of two and a half. I look forward to the review’s publication.
In terms of perpetrator strategy, there will be a domestic abuse strategy, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, knows. It will of course make reference to perpetrators and how we deal with them. More broadly in relation to Amendment 78, we will come on to debate the provision of community-based support services. We recognise that there is more to be done in this area and I will set out the Government’s route map to achieve this when we reach Amendment 17—hopefully, tonight.
Lastly, I would add that the Government’s new domestic abuse strategy will consider the role of early intervention work with children, including the very youngest, to ensure that they are not forgotten. I hope that I have been able to persuade my noble friend Lady Stroud that the Bill already addresses the issues that she has raised and that it will help deliver better support and protection to pregnant women and young children alike who are victims of domestic abuse.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate on this amendment, but especially the noble Baronesses, Lady Armstrong and Lady Finlay, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for their contributions. Their contributions were moving, constructive and hugely valuable. For me too, hearing the cross-party nature of the support for the very youngest right the way through to the age of two was a special moment in this House. I thank noble Lords for their contributions.
I also thank my noble friend the Minister for the way she has listened and sought to ensure that all children, including babies in utero, are recognised as potential victims of domestic abuse. The assurance that all babies in utero are to be recognised in guidance is very precious. I thank her and her officials for responding so fulsomely. I am so grateful to her for her work in ensuring that the draft guidance will recognise that pregnancy is a specific risk factor that can make victims more vulnerable. This is hugely important because pregnancy, as we have heard during this debate, can be a trigger for domestic abuse. Existing abuse can get worse as well during pregnancy.
I am delighted too that guidance recognises that domestic abuse experienced during pregnancy and in the earliest years is harmful to birth outcomes and babies’ early development, and that trauma-informed support will be available for these families. This is crucial because a mother’s emotional state can have a direct influence, as my noble friend the Minister said, on foetal development and on-going stresses, such as domestic abuse, can disrupt babies’ neural development.
Finally, I am delighted that guidance will recognise that while pregnancy may increase risk of abuse, the interaction with health professionals provides an opportunity for women to seek support, as well as for professionals to reach out to women who may be experiencing domestic abuse. This is a moment for us not to miss. These women are already in the system and standing in front of a professional. We can harness this moment of opportunity to ensure protection for these very vulnerable babies.
I am mindful of the words of warning of the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and the need to remain vigilant on the effectiveness of guidance. I am sure that Ministers who have spoken in this debate will join us in remaining vigilant so that these protections become a reality. There is clearly strong cross-party support to recognise babies and the unborn as potential victims of domestic abuse, and to seize the moment to intervene. at a crucial juncture for parents. I thank the Government for the steps they have taken and given assurances that they will take.
I finally thank the more than 70 experts, doctors and charities of early childhood and domestic abuse who put their names behind this amendment. An extraordinary number of organisations and professionals have backed this, including Amanda McIntyre of For Baby’s Sake, Alison Morton of the Institute of Health Visiting, and Sally Hogg from the First 1001 Days movement. Their work on the frontline is what makes all the difference. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Clause 7: General functions of Commissioner
Amendments 8 and 9 not moved.
My Lords, we still have another nine groups of amendments to cover if we are to hit today’s target for the first day of Report. Given that we will need to sit late in order to try and do that, I suggest that now might be an appropriate time for a short break.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 10. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 8: Reports
10: Clause 8, page 5, line 29, at end insert—
“(7) Within one year of the passing of this Act, the Commissioner must publish a report under this section, which—(a) investigates the impact of Universal Credit single household payments on victims of domestic abuse; and(b) investigates and presents alternative options for the payment of Universal Credit single household payments that protect victims of domestic abuse.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would place a legal duty on the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to investigate the payment of Universal Credit separately to members of a couple and to lay a report to Parliament.
My Lords, Amendment 10 heads up a group of amendments on social security which I will introduce, focusing on those in my name.
When I originally tabled them in Committee, I wanted to draw attention to the myriad ways in which the social security system undermines this Bill, particularly its very welcome inclusion of economic abuse. I and other noble Lords gave examples of how the social security system is letting down victims and survivors at every stage of the domestic abuse journey. I had hoped in response for some recognition from the Government of the tensions that exist between social security and domestic abuse policy, but no, so in light of this and the disappointment voiced by Refuge and Women’s Aid, to whom I pay tribute for their work and thank for their help, I decided that there was a case for revisiting these issues on Report. I am grateful to noble Lords who have signed the amendment.
I will not repeat the general case for why it is so important that social security policy supports rather than undermines domestic abuse policy, which underpins Amendment 68. This would require an impact assessment of any future social security reforms on domestic abuse victims and has been welcomed by the domestic abuse commissioner designate. In response to the amendment in Committee, the Minister pointed out that:
“The DWP is already obliged to consider the impacts of its policies through equality assessments, in accordance with the public sector equality duty.” —[Official Report, 27/1/21; col. 1703]
However, as this was the response given in the Commons, I had already explained that DWP equality impact assessments are very limited from a gender perspective and do nothing to assess, for instance, the impact on who in a couple controls resources, on the financial security and autonomy each enjoys, or on the ability to escape an abusive relationship. If the Government are serious about treating domestic abuse as a
“whole of government issue and response”, —[Official Report, 27/1/21; col. 1700]
as the Minister claimed, then it surely makes sense to carry out such an impact assessment at the design stage of social security reform.
Two other issues that I raised in this context were the training of jobcentre staff and the treatment of panic rooms in sanctuary schemes. On training, I very much appreciate the Minister’s helpful letter. I have shared it with Women’s Aid, which was involved in the early stages of the training and is very positive about aspects of it. However, there remain unresolved concerns and I would be grateful if the Minister could ask that the appropriate DWP Minister meet with Women’s Aid to discuss them.
With regard to the European Court of Human Rights ruling that the removal of the spare room subsidy—AKA the bedroom tax—unlawfully discriminates against victims of domestic abuse with a panic room, the Minister responded that the Government recognise the important role played by the sanctuary scheme
“in a victim’s long-term safety and well-being”,
“Work is under way to establish what steps are necessary to support claimants”—[Official Report, 27/1/21; col. 1703.]
in such schemes who are affected by the bedroom tax. In the meantime, government guidance to local authorities recommends that they take this into consideration when deciding whether to award a discretionary housing payment.
However, why is it taking so long to implement a judgment made in October 2019? If the application of the bedroom tax in such cases is unlawful, is not the answer to stop applying it? The obvious mechanism for doing so is Regulation B13 of the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006, which is how the Government resolved unlawful discrimination with regard to the bedroom tax in relation to disability.
Discretionary housing payments are inherently unsatisfactory because, as the name makes clear, they are discretionary and do not afford domestic abuse survivors the confidence given by a clear right. This is a clear example of how a social security policy change has had a specific and negative impact on survivors of domestic abuse, which could have been prevented if a proper impact assessment of such policies on survivors had been undertaken before it was made. The issue has been pursued with the Secretary of State, but there is still no action. Will the Minister undertake to raise this with the Secretary of State herself?
Amendment 10 also exemplifies why we need a domestic abuse-sensitive impact assessment of new social security measures. It would require the domestic abuse commissioner to investigate the payment of universal credit separately to members of a couple and to lay a report before Parliament. I will not repeat the arguments made in Committee, but I note the recent call of the Women and Equalities Committee for urgent research into the gendered impact of UC design, including the single household payment structure, having argued that it
“creates risks for women’s financial independence, which can have severe consequences for women in abusive relationships.”
In Committee, the Minister made much of the argument that it would not be appropriate to mandate the commissioner in this way, as it is for her to set her own priorities. Yet the commissioner herself has welcomed this amendment, while understandably also looking to a government commitment to provide the necessary resources to undertake it. Moreover, the Government have required the commissioner designate to map community-based services, now enshrined in government Amendment 17, and presumably did not consider that that impinged on her independence, so I hope that we will not hear that argument today. I will respond to the Minister’s other arguments in the order that they were made.
First, the Minister pointed out that for many legacy benefits, payment is already made to one household member and that, therefore, the UC model is not new. But what is new is that, whereas before different benefits might have gone to different members of a couple, UC rolls up six benefits in one. This increases the risk of financial abuse and is why it has only now become such an issue. She then argued that most couples
“keep and manage their finances together”—[Official Report, 27/1/21; col. 1700.]
and therefore do not want state intervention in the joint management of their finances. But research into household finances indicates that the realities of management, power and control in ostensibly joint finances are far more complex than that statement suggests. Moreover, as the Economic Affairs Committee pointed out, payment into a single account does not in fact
“reflect reality for many families today, who are used to both partners having their own income”,
which is important
“for reducing the risks of financial coercion and domestic abuse more widely and for encouraging more balanced and equal relationships.”
The implication of the Minister’s statement is that we are talking about only a small group. But, unfortunately, financial abuse is all too common and she herself acknowledged elsewhere in Committee that:
“As we all know, domestic abuse is widespread”.—[Official Report, 8/2/21; col. 100.]
As for state intervention, the current default position of joint payments itself represents state intervention.
What I find depressing is that in arguing that
“it is important that we allow the individual experiencing domestic abuse to decide whether split payments will help their individual circumstances”—[Official Report, 27/1/21; col. 1700.]
the Minister simply ignored the points made by myself and others, as well as domestic abuse organisations on the ground, that to put the onus on the individual victim in this way is to open them up to considerable risk. If she were in this situation, would she feel safe asking for a split payment in the knowledge that her partner would quickly work out why his payment had been reduced, potentially leading to frightening repercussions? Indeed, the DWP’s own operational guidance acknowledges this risk. Yes, messaging to encourage payment into the main carer’s account has been a welcome step but it is not seen as the answer by those on the ground and does not help those without children.
The Minister then raised a number of issues and practical challenges that would need to be addressed in a system of default separate payments. That is exactly why we need an in-depth, independent investigation of the kind envisaged in this amendment. If the Government genuinely wanted to achieve the best outcome for victims and survivors, they would embrace this amendment with open arms in the same way that the commissioner-designate has done.
Turning to Amendment 69, I start with a mea culpa. To my horror I realised too late that I had tabled the wrong amendment in Committee, and I apologise to the Minister for that. As originally intended, this amendment would exempt domestic abuse survivors from having to repay any benefit advance to protect them from having to wait at least five weeks for their first payment.
As anticipated, the Minister responded that this would
“raise equality concerns and lead to calls for the measure’s extension to other groups.”—[Official Report, 27/1/21; col. 1702.]
But the existence of the special job search easement for domestic abuse survivors demonstrates the scope for exemptions for this group, and to my knowledge it has not led to such calls. The particular vulnerability domestic abuse survivors face at the point of claiming surely justifies their exemption from repaying the advance.
Typically, survivors of economic abuse already carry significant debt and the last thing they want is to then become indebted to the DWP, even taking into account the welcome relaxation of the repayment rules mentioned by the Minister and now brought forward in the Budget. Yet the noble Baroness totally failed to address this point. If she had left an abuser, with few possessions and in debt, would she really want to sign up to a further DWP debt? Because debt it is, even if interest-free.
Concerns about fraud are addressed by the amendment which sets out the evidence that would be required to prove domestic abuse, with reference to the legal aid requirements. I take the Minister’s point that this could delay payment, which is the very opposite of what is wanted, but surely it would be possible to make an emergency payment, making it clear that evidence would be required to confirm it.
I will leave it to the noble Lord, Lord Best, to introduce Amendment 72, which would mitigate the impact of the benefit cap on domestic abuse survivors. I am grateful to him and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester for taking this amendment forward and to DWP officials and Ministers who met with us after Committee. I hope we can find a resolution to this important issue.
In conclusion, while I welcome the Minister’s assurance that the Home Office has regular discussions with the DWP, there is no evidence that this has had any effect. If nothing else, I hope this debate will encourage a more critical engagement with the DWP and that the arguments put forward here will be shared with it. It is so sad if, having taken the pioneering step to include economic abuse in this Bill, such abuse is then perpetuated by the Government’s own social security policies. It is an issue raised time and again by organisations on the ground.
As the Minister herself said in Committee,
‘economic hardship should not be a barrier to someone leaving an abusive partner’.”—[Official Report, 1/2/21; col. 2010.]
Yet it is a barrier, thanks in large part to current social security policy. I quote a survivor of economic abuse, whose situation was highlighted in a recent online article:
“All of society—the police, the benefits system, the courts—are missing the simple fact that the massive reason that most victims cannot leave their abuser is because of finances, especially when children are involved. Money is your escape, it’s your way out. I really don’t know where I’d be without universal credit. That’s why I want to raise awareness and talk about how it needs to be easier to access. I know how hard it is to access support when you're so traumatised by what’s happening that waking up every day and looking after your children is hard enough already.”
These amendments would help to make life easier for women in this situation— women whom we must remember on International Women’s Day.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 72 and the consequential Amendment 102 in my name and those of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I speak for the three of us and I also thank the Chartered Institute of Housing for expert technical advice.
Amendment 72 calls for a period of grace from the imposition of the cap on the benefits of those escaping domestic abuse. In Committee, we noted that the benefit cap is a particular problem for those desperate to leave their current accommodation, both those victims of abuse who move out into a rented home and those who flee first to a refuge or temporary accommodation but need to move on into rented housing. The cap on benefits means that someone suffering from abuse may simply be unable to leave their abuser because this would mean that their income, after paying the rent, would not be enough to live on. The cap is likely to cut the benefit that they would otherwise receive by over £50 per week outside London and well over £100 per week in London. The benefit cap, therefore, traps them where they are.
There are other, special, unfairnesses caused by the benefit cap in domestic abuse cases. If an abused woman had been working and was forced to move out and start claiming benefits, she would be allowed a period of grace from the benefit cap, but not so if she was not in work. Yet as the debates on this Bill have illustrated, not working may have been the result of coercive control where the abuser has prevented the survivor from working. Even more unfairly, the imposition of the cap because the survivor has a third child may mean penalising someone for being the victim of non-consensual conception—the so-called rape clause.
Our solution is the simple one of exempting from the benefit cap for a year all those forced to claim benefits because of domestic abuse to give them the breathing space to shop around for more affordable accommodation or, where appropriate, to get a job. We are very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman- Scott, the appropriate Lords Minister, who met with the three of us, introduced us to Mims Davies, the DWP Minister, and subsequently ensured that we received a full explanation of her department’s position.
It appeared to us that there is not an objection in principle to supporting victims of domestic abuse who could be greatly disadvantaged by the benefit cap, nor that there were difficulties in defining and identifying those who would be covered by the period of grace. However, because of administrative difficulties, the department’s preferred approach is for those facing this hazard to apply to the local authority for help in the form of a discretionary housing payment to assist with their rent.
I am bound to say that this alternative to allowing a straightforward, automatic period of grace is not very helpful. It represents a somewhat cumbersome and certainly insecure basis for overcoming the problem. Will the local authority be able to offer a discretionary housing payment to the abuse victim in these circumstances? DHPs must fund so many other cases—for example, relieving the hardship created for thousands by that notorious bedroom tax. The £180 million per annum set aside for DHPs is spread across all local councils. Moreover, DHPs are very often awarded for only a short period, such as three months. A woman who is desperate to get out of an abusive relationship but is trapped by knowing her capped benefits will not cover the basic necessities for life for herself and her children cannot risk moving out.
We have considered whether the task of monitoring a claimant’s circumstances would create extra work for jobcentre staff, but this amendment’s proposal would not involve any monitoring of claimants; it is for a simple one-off fixed exemption from the benefit for 12 months. This contrasts with the alternative suggestion of passing the job to hard-pressed local authorities for them to make DHPs, which indeed require monitoring because they are discretionary. The number of people who would be affected by the period of grace is small, but for those who are affected it is of the utmost importance. The victim of the abuse may be forced to suffer indefinitely if the benefits system means that to leave their abusive partner would be financially ruinous.
It seems that the administrative processes for DWP officials may stymie our hopes of securing this period of grace, but perhaps we can be assured that the alternative route of using the DHP option will be facilitated by the Government recommending that local authorities prioritise these cases, and by enhanced liaison between local authorities and DWP Jobcentre Plus offices. The problem will not go away just because it is administratively inconvenient. We believe that Ministers are sympathetic to the approach that the amendment puts forward, and we hope the Minister today can offer us some hope that it can be resolved.
My Lords, I was going to pass a short comment on each of the amendments because I agree with them all, but I will confine myself to Amendment 10.
I hope the Minister has taken on board the central point that my noble friend Lady Lister made: the social security system is undermining the processes and procedures in the Bill. We do not have joined-up government. It is terrible, really, because I have come across this several times. In 2001 I moved, after two years at the DSS, to the Home Office. It did not take me long, bearing in mind my responsibilities at the Home Office, to work out that we were not really joined-up at all. That was 20 years ago, and the situation does not seem to have improved at all. It is the problem of working in silos and allowing the DSS—or the DWP, as it is now—to use the administrative route out that is causing a problem, and there is no doubt that there is a solution.
The fact is that research from Refuge has shown that—I have to say I am astonished at this figure— 1.6 million adults have seen their experience of economic abuse start during the pandemic. We need some serious amendments to the universal benefits system; that is the priority.
The single payments are clearly open to abuse by perpetrators. As my noble friend said, it would not take long for a person to work out why their money had gone down: they would know that their partner’s had gone up and they would start to ask about the reasons. I understand that, some two years ago, the DWP said that it would encourage joint claimants to nominate a bank account for the main carer of the children in the house. But, while I am nowhere near an expert, I have seen no evidence that that advice has been followed, let alone effective. I simply do not believe that separate payments are impractical. It is all very well to claim that many couples manage their finances jointly, but that is not the case. We all know that it is not the case for millions of women who are experiencing economic abuse.
Amendment 10 is very reasonable, although I note that the Local Government Association wants a parliamentary inquiry. I do not think that that is the route here. On balance, I would favour the route set out in the amendment through the commissioner, with resources; it is more precise and it has a time limit, and it would not be side-tracked by other pressures on elected Members in the Select Committees. There is an argument there, but I do not accept the LGA view. This route would be a much better one.
As I said, I agree with the other amendments and do not propose to say again what I said in Committee. While it is not for me, and probably not for my noble friend, to say, frankly, there should be a vote on one or more of these amendments on Report to buttress the pressure and the force that the Minister could take back to the department—or even better, take back to the Government—to seek a joined-up solution. If it is just a question of the House having a little debate but there is no pressure, I fear that very little will happen.
My Lords, I agree with these amendments and in particular with what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has just said. However, I want to concentrate on Amendment 68, and I declare an interest as the chairman of the National Commission on Forced Marriage. I am not asking for comments on forced marriage to be put into the Bill on Report, but I want to see it in the statutory guidance. When looking at Amendment 68, I think it is very important that an assessment should be made of the impact of social security reforms by the relevant government department. There is a group of young people whose needs must be assessed in the social security reforms: those who are being forced into marriage—they are usually coerced. They include, in particular—this is what I am concerned about—those who are aged under 18. I hope that they can be taken into account when the impact of these policies is taken into account.
My Lords, I would like to speak to Amendment 10, and I am afraid I am going to make the argument that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, did not want to hear again today. I will speak to Amendment 17 later in the debate, but, in the main, I do not think that the exception should prove the rule. I am not sure that it is right to demand a report on such a specific issue on the face of the Bill, nor do I think it is right to demand that it is done within a year of the passing of this legislation. While the commissioner-designate has said that she is happy to do the work, she has indicated that she would need additional resources and support to do so.
I am not making any comments on the value or otherwise of the work itself, but I believe that it is for the commissioner’s office to decide priorities within the budget allocated to her, rather than it being the role of legislation. She is the “independent” domestic abuse commissioner and it is not for us to dictate in such fine detail what she should and should not be doing.
My Lords, I begin by acknowledging my noble friend Lady Lister and her heroic persistence in seeking welfare reform. The staggering statistics which have just been shared by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, are shocking. In that light, I would argue that economic abuse is an integral part of coercive control that has been experienced by survivors. The Government’s recognition and inclusion of economic abuse in the new statutory definition of domestic violence is therefore welcome.
As has been said by all noble Lords, we know that financial control is a barrier to escaping violence and abuse, and therefore immediate access to financial assistance through welfare benefits is a lynchpin for women survivors if they choose or are forced to flee their homes. I am particularly concerned about women without secure immigration status, including those whose marriages have not been registered, and, of course, migrant women who find it impossible to access refuge accommodation and other welfare support, making it impossible for them to escape abuse.
Refuge and Women’s Aid, among other leading organisations, are seriously concerned about and are seeking changes to welfare benefits as regards all survivors of domestic violence, without which women will not be in a position to leave their abusive perpetrators. The single payment of universal credit, the five-week wait for payment, the two-child tax credit limit and the benefit cap all disproportionately impact single women and children. We are all too aware that the law detrimentally impacts them and other welfare support hinders women’s choices and decisions.
I therefore ask the Minister—I am sure these points have been made, but I want to reinforce them—if the Government will heed the call of women’s organisations and place a duty on the Government to assess all welfare reforms for their impact on women’s ability to escape abuse. Will the Government deliver separate payments of universal credit and ensure that they are safe for survivors of domestic abuse? Will they end the benefit cap for victims and survivors of violence and abuse which deters survivors from finding safe and secure homes as well as preventing some from being able to move on from secure refuge space?
I am very thankful to have been able to speak to these amendments, specifically highlighting Amendment 10. All noble Lords have spoken with a great deal of expertise, of which I profess I have none, so I am very grateful. I just wanted to stand in support of these amendments.
My Lords, I strongly support Amendments 10, 68 and 69, to which I have added my name. I also support the other amendments in this group, although I will not speak to them. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has, as always, introduced her amendments with great thoroughness and therefore I will try not to take too much of your Lordships’ time, although I do want to speak a little more on Amendment 10 than on the other two.
The proposed new subsection (7)(a) in Amendment 10 makes very good sense, requiring as it does that the commissioner within a year publishes a report on the impact of these universal credit single payments on victims of domestic abuse. Whether or not the amendment is accepted, I certainly hope that the commissioner will seek the resources from the Government to enable her to implement this recommendation.
Paragraph (b) is absolutely vital because, as organisations such as Refuge know perfectly well, action is urgently needed to resolve the problem for domestic abuse victims of the default position that universal credit is paid into a single bank account on behalf of a household. I applaud the announcement from the Department for Work and Pensions that it will “encourage” joint claimants to nominate the bank account of the main carer of any children in the household, but that simply does not go far enough at all. Too often, the abusing partner will make sure that the money goes into their account. The main carer of the children is then exposed to the perpetrator using money in a coercive and controlling way, adding economic abuse to any other forms used.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, a victim can ask for payments to be split between the two partners, but that is a dangerous thing to do when your partner is abusing you and is perhaps dangerous to be with. The ideal is the policy adopted in Scotland, where separate payments are the default. However, I remember the UK Government arguing strongly against such a policy when the universal credit legislation was being debated in this House all that time ago. To introduce it as the default option now would be a sharp change of direction but, in the domestic abuse context, I hope that the Minister is sympathetic.
The alternative would be for a single payment to be paid to the primary carer of the children as the default position—not here and there but as a matter of general policy. This would be more straightforward for the Government to do and would, in my view, provide considerably greater security for the majority of victims of abuse and a fairer system for everyone.
When the majority of perpetrators are men and the majority of primary carers of children are women, it is easy to fall into the position of regarding all men as undeserving and all women as in need of support. I know of cases where the perpetrator is a woman and many cases where the carer of the children is the father. In fact, the father as the primary carer is a lot more common than it used to be. The proposal, therefore, to pay universal credit to the primary carer is not sexist but is very important, in my view. These primary care fathers are unlikely to be the perpetrators of domestic abuse, so this is a helpful way forward.
All the amendment does is to require the commissioner to publish a report, which investigates and presents alternative options for universal credit payments that protect victims of domestic abuse. The important point is that change is needed; it is not enough for the commissioner to produce a report. However, this amendment leaves it to the Government to decide which way to go.
Briefly on Amendment 68, again the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has cogently argued the case and I only want to add my support. Again, the commissioner supports measures to ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions carries out a full impact assessment of changes to welfare policy on survivors of domestic abuse and their children. Clearly, detailed pre-legislative scrutiny is vital in the social security arena, where policy changes can have a devastating effect on individuals and, in particular, on vulnerable victims of domestic abuse. Surely the Minister will agree with us on that. I hope, therefore, that the Government accept this modest amendment.
Finally, Amendment 69 is more of a challenge for Ministers, as it would cost a bit of money, although not very much. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has set out, what is known as the five-week wait is devastating for victims of domestic abuse. We know that five weeks can become eight, 10 or even 12 before a claimant receives their first benefit payment. Claimants can have an advance, which sounds nice, but it is ultimately a nightmare when claimants have their benefits reduced by up to 25% each week to repay the debt. Universal credit is now at such a low level that repayments leave parents unable to feed their children and keep them warm and clothed. These basic human needs become choices: do we eat or keep warm? Can any of us say that that is remotely acceptable?
When domestic abuse victims generally leave home with little or no money and few possessions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, the only two options of a complete lack of money or a loan are just not reasonable in a civilised country. The five-week wait is surely the most widely criticised aspect of universal credit—and there are many. But if the Government will not get rid of it for all claimants, as they should, I hope that the Minister accepts the modest proposal in Amendment 69.
My Lords, I was very pleased to be able to attach my name to Amendments 10, 68 and 69 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, also signed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Burt of Solihull. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for her tireless work in these areas. I also express the Green group’s support for the cross-party backed Amendments 72 and 102—linked amendments which I would have signed had I recognised that there was a space.
I begin with Amendment 68, which gives the Government a duty to assess the impact of social security forms on victims or potential victims of domestic abuse. I go back to 2010, when the Fawcett Society—I had better declare an historic interest as a former member of the board—took the Government to court for a judicial review over their failure to conduct a gender assessment of the impacts of the Budget. It was one of those cases where the society lost the case but won the argument. The Government conceded that the gender impact assessments did apply to the Budget and should have been carried out in two key areas. The challenge also led to an investigation of gender assessments by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, also referred to the European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2019 that the bedroom tax unlawfully discriminated against vulnerable victims of domestic violence living in sanctuary schemes. If an assessment had been made, victims of domestic abuse would have been exempt in the first place and—of far less concern to me personally, but none the less possibly of interest to the Government—embarrassment to the Government would have been avoided. I suggest that the Government, by either accepting this amendment or introducing something similar of their own, would be avoiding similar events in future.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson of Welton, suggested that we should not be telling the commissioner designate what to do, but I think that requesting and providing the requisite resources—a small sum in the overall context of the government budget—is entirely appropriate when the Bill becomes an Act and is implemented and enforced.
As a noble Baroness said on one of the previous groups, so much of our debate on the Bill has focused on the criminal justice system, but we know that that is not the only place or, for many victims, the primary place where their problems lie. In our Second Reading debate, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, acknowledged with admirable frankness that earlier legislation passed on his watch had been inadequate: it was inadequate when it was passed and it has been exposed since. I would say to the Ministers working on the Bill for the Government, “You do not want to be in that position in a decade’s time”. Ensuring that an assessment is made will ensure that the appropriate actions can be taken as they are needed. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, current assessments are not taking account of the impact of government policies on victims and potential victims of domestic abuse.
Finally, to conclude on Amendment 68, I note that an amendment that might have been here is not. There has been strong pressure on Bills across this House to deal with the disastrous impact of the immigration status of no recourse to public funds. Victims of domestic abuse who have that status are the most vulnerable victims explicitly pushed away from the benefit system. I noted that in Committee the Government said, “Oh, exceptions are made”, but being an exception is not a comfortable, safe or certain place. Only by abolishing the entire status of no recourse to public funds could we ensure that no victim or potential victim of domestic abuse was left, all too literally, out in the cold. I would ask for a change in policy, but an impact assessment would be a start to expose what is happening.
I turn to the other amendments in the group. I note that the Women’s Aid briefing for this stage, which says that it is essential that the Bill delivers reforms beyond the criminal justice system alone if it is truly to make a difference to women and children experiencing domestic abuse. The lack of funding, the inadequacy of our support system, is a fundamental barrier to escaping. Over half of the survivors surveyed by Women’s Aid and the TUC could not afford to leave an abuser. Amendment 10, providing separate payments as standard, has been extensively covered. All I would say in addition is that we do not have to look just at the situation of abuse to consider the damage that single payments of universal credit are doing. I should like to add to my argument on the second group that, even where a relationship does not fit a definition of abuse, the gendered nature of power relationships in our society is still marked by years of male breadwinners, unequal pay and discrimination, particularly against mothers in the workforce.
I recommend that anyone who has not encountered the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed look it up and consider how reports we have heard about the likelihood of abuse starting in pregnancy fit with the level of pregnancy discrimination experienced in the workplace.
Amendment 69 is about the argument that, when you have just taken the brave, frightening and dangerous step of leaving an abusive relationship, it is unarguably damaging and wrong to take on the weight of a loan; that should be changed.
Finally, on Amendments 72 and 102 on the benefit cap, this is a heartless, disastrous and damaging policy that explicitly and by design throws children into poverty. I note the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Best, made about the Government suggesting that this could be covered by discretionary housing payments from local councils. Here I should perhaps declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Local councils are seeing enormous pressures, with continuing austerity in the supply of funds from Westminster. We have heard from Ministers that they want to make this Bill the best it can be. A postcode lottery in the ability to escape from abusive relationships, due to the benefits cap, is not the best this Bill can be.
My Lords, back in the days of the joint consultative committee on this Bill, on which I sat, we identified that
“access to money is one of the main barriers to ending an abusive relationship”,
for all the reasons outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. This is why she returns to this theme today, and I am delighted to continue my support.
We have long discussed single universal credit payments as a major tool of the perpetrator of economic coercive control—a tool handed to him by the Government. Amendment 10 requires the domestic abuse commissioner to look at this and to report to Parliament.
In her remarks, the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson, said that she believed this is not appropriate or realistically achievable in one year, and that it is for the commissioner to decide what investigations she makes. She has a point. Frankly, I for one do not understand why a review should be necessary at all. For me, the case has already been made several times over.
Maybe those who design the payment systems would prefer to consign the work to enable split payments to the “too difficult” box, but, if they can design a mostly working model to incorporate six benefits into one payment that fluctuates with income—universal credit—I do not see why split payments should not be a doddle.
Amendment 10 is a very moderate amendment that calls for the facts to be laid bare so that the Government can be absolutely sure they will achieve the effect of greater economic independence, not just for the victims of domestic abuse but to generate greater economic independence for women receiving universal credit in all circumstances. Split payments reflect modern-day life. If we purport to see the independence of women in an equal society as a desirable thing, for so many reasons, why hand financial control in the vast majority of cases to the man?
Amendment 68 does the same thing as Amendment 10 from the perspective of relevant government departments, getting everyone involved in implementation looking at the issue from the perspective of what they can do. Amendment 69 takes the strain and worry of having to pay back benefit advances from victims who have received them. As I said in Committee, if the benefit system is not up to helping victims under great duress in a timely manner, those victims should not be made to suffer the worry of where to find the money to repay all the additional expenses they have incurred because of government tardiness.
This is a time of extreme vulnerability, as many noble Lords have said, not only for the victim but, potentially, for her children. Changes in the light of these amendments could make the difference between a decision to escape or to stay and face the misery and danger of remaining with an abuser.
I also support Amendments 72 and 102 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, for all the excellent reasons he and other noble Lords have given. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who always makes interesting observations, bemoaned the fact that government is no more joined up and working for victims today than it was 20 years ago.
All the amendments in this group are designed to relax or change some of the rules to enable greater independence from the perpetrator and make the possibility of escape, survival and a life free from fear for the victim and her family a greater reality. They are all well worth supporting but, I fear, not by this Government.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Lister for her superb introduction and to all noble Lords who have spoken.
Amendment 10 relates to single payments of universal credit. The case has been made overwhelmingly clearly that the system of single payments facilitates financial abuse by allowing perpetrators to control the entire household income. Ministers only seem to have three arguments against acting on this: first, that claimants can ask for split payments, although, as my noble friend pointed out, that just puts survivors at risk; secondly, that most couples keep and manage their finances together, although, as Refuge points out, the finances of those experiencing economic abuse are not managed jointly but controlled by their abuser; and thirdly, that it would undermine the nature of universal credit and be a bit difficult. These are pretty weak arguments. All this amendment does is say that the commissioner will look into the matter further and report to Parliament. If the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson, and the Government do not want the commissioner to look into it, can I suggest that they simply sort it out themselves? That would save our having to do so.
Amendment 69 would exempt domestic abuse survivors from repaying benefit advances made to mitigate the five-week wait. There is a real risk that survivors wanting to flee will be deterred because they know it is five weeks until they get paid—many are already in debt and do not want to take on more—and if they take an advance on, their monthly income falls below survival level, yet they have other debts to service. Does the Minister accept that this is a genuine barrier? I would be really interested to know the answer.
Amendment 72 would disapply the benefit cap for 12 months for survivors who fled and claimed universal credit. I am not going to repeat the devastating critique made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, but I do think Ministers owe it to this House and to survivors to engage with those arguments properly. Normally, Ministers argue that people can escape the cap by moving to cheaper housing or by getting a job, but those are not practical for someone fleeing abuse. There are already exemptions for those in refuges, so why not for those in any accommodation? There is already an exemption from the work requirement of universal credit for someone who has fled abuse in the previous six months, but what use is that exemption if survivors cannot afford to take advantage of it because they would still be hit by the benefit cap and so could not afford to pay their rent?
These issues are all examples of social security policy or practice which have a differential impact on survivors of domestic abuse. If Amendment 68 were accepted, government departments would have to assess the impact of any social security reforms on victims or potential victims of domestic abuse before making changes, rather than afterwards. It would stop us being here over and over again, trying to point out the problems of systems already changed, by trying to address them beforehand. Had that been done before creating universal credit or imposing the benefit cap or the bedroom tax, these problems could have been designed out at an earlier stage.
The survivor quoted by my noble friend Lady Lister was right: you need money to escape. Our social security system should enable survivors to flee abuse, but it does not. As my noble friend Lord Rooker said, this is a failure of joined-up government. The sad reality is that problems do join up, and at the level of the individual survivor, but the Government response fails to address that. There is no point in the Government legislating to support survivors of domestic abuse while steadfastly ignoring problems in their own systems, which risks exacerbating or even enabling abuse and making it hard or sometimes impossible for survivors to flee and rebuild their lives. I say to the Minister, whom I know cares about these issues, a lot of work has gone into researching, evidencing, and debating the issues, and the fact that the noble Baroness is a Home Office Minister is not a reason not to engage with them. The House, the country and survivors deserve to have these arguments taken seriously. I look forward to her reply.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, for explaining their amendments, which relate to the operation of the welfare system, including universal credit and the benefit cap, and their impact on victims of domestic abuse. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, is absolutely right: just because I am a Home Officer Minister does not mean that I should not and do not engage on these matters.
Amendment 10 seeks to place a duty on the domestic abuse commissioner to investigate universal credit single household payments and lay a report before Parliament within a year of Royal Assent. As I indicated in Committee, and as my noble friend Lady Sanderson said, as an independent officeholder, it should be for the commissioner to set her own priorities as set out in her strategy plan, as provided for in Clause 13. I understand that the commissioner has no current plans to examine this issue in the next year. If this amendment were to be made it would necessarily mean that other issues which she might have regarded as more pressing would fall by the wayside. Moreover, the way the amendment is drafted arguably prejudices the conclusions of the commissioner’s report and makes it difficult or impossible for her to comply with the duty if those conclusions do not then come to pass. If the aim of this amendment is to secure a particular preordained outcome, I see no benefit in asking the independent commissioner to investigate the matter. She has already embarked on the mapping exercise in relation to community-based services, so there is no contradiction between government Amendment 17 and the concerns we have about Amendment 10.
DWP is committed to doing all it can to support victims of domestic and economic abuse, including giving split payments when requested, easements to benefit conditionality and referrals to local specialist support. However, by default, a core principle of universal credit is that it is a single household payment. Where a claimant is part of a couple and living in the same household, they will need to make a joint claim for universal credit. Many legacy benefits, including housing benefit, child benefit and child tax credit, already make payment to one member of the household, so the way universal credit is paid is not a new concept. Instead, we believe that this reflects the way that most couples can and want to manage their finances—jointly and without state intervention. We have therefore taken a proportionate response, ensuring that universal credit meets both the needs of the many and the most disadvantaged, including victims of domestic abuse.
Recognising that there are circumstances in which split payments are appropriate, we have made them available on request to anyone at risk of domestic abuse. As part of that, it is important that we allow the individual who is experiencing domestic abuse to decide whether they think that split payments will help their individual circumstances. Once that choice is made, the request for such payment can be made in whatever way works best for the claimant, including during a face-to-face meeting or a phone call. Once paid, the larger percentage of a split payment will be allocated to the person with primary caring responsibilities, such as childcare. This is to ensure the health and well-being of the majority of the household. We can also arrange for any rent to be paid directly to the landlord to protect the family tenancy. No information relating to why a split payment has been requested or granted will be notified to the claimant’s partner. In addition to the right to split payment on request, we have also taken measures to encourage payment to the main carer in the family. Evidence suggests that 60% of universal credit payments are made to women, who are usually the main carer. Given this, we have changed the claimant messaging on the service to encourage claimants in joint claims to nominate the bank account of the main carer to receive their universal credit payment.
I hope that noble Lords will see that, although universal credit’s single household payment mirrors the model of the legacy benefits it replaces, much has been done to offer alternative payment arrangements to victims of domestic abuse. However, universal credit cannot solve all the problems of domestic abuse and split payment is not a panacea. It is crucial to acknowledge that abusive partners may still take money from their victims, whether that is payment of universal credit or any other source of income, including through intimidation, coercion and physical force. Payment to the victim’s individual bank account is no guarantee, with such people capable of learning passwords and taking control of bank cards.
The Government therefore view calls for split payments to all couples claiming universal credit as disproportionate. This would be a fundamental change to the payment structure of universal credit, from a single household payment made to one individual of the benefit unit to payments split between joint claimants by default, rather than made available to those who need this method of payment. It would add very significant cost and complexity. For example, split payments are currently a manual process. To introduce them by default they would have to be automated, at considerable cost and disruption. This would also deflect limited resource from the improvements already prioritised for the universal credit system. Such fundamental change from a single to a multiple-payment model for all, regardless of need, may also put the stability of the system at risk for all 6 million current universal credit claimants, and at a time when numbers have grown significantly in response to the pandemic.
Lastly, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, advocated split payment by default, pointing to the Scottish Government’s wish to adopt this method of payment. For the reasons I have set out, that is not the Government’s position. It is also noticeable that the Scottish Government are yet to come forward with firm proposals. I say this not to criticise, but merely to illustrate to the House that this is a complex area in which to design a workable policy. Nevertheless, we will continue to work closely with the Scottish Government to establish the practicalities of delivering split payments in Scotland. Should they come up with a policy capable of being implemented, we will observe their implementation to further understand the impacts, any potential advantages and disadvantages. We would ask advocates of split payment by default to do the same, in a “test and learn” approach, so that future debate on this may be based on practical evidence.
Amendment 68 would require the DWP to assess the impact of welfare reform on victims, and potential victims, of domestic abuse. The DWP already does this, in accordance with the public sector equality duty. An equality impact assessment to support the introduction of universal credit was published in November 2011, and an impact assessment was published in December 2012. Equality impacts have been further considered in developing subsequent plans surrounding the implementation of universal credit. I appreciate the noble Baroness’s intention in proposing the amendment, but I do not think that the additional duty is required.
Finally, Amendment 69 seeks to make victims of domestic abuse exempt from repaying universal credit advances. It is important to note that there can be no such thing as an advance that is never intended to be recovered. Advances are simply an advance of a claimant’s benefit, paid early, resulting in the same amount of universal credit being spread across more payments. It is, therefore, more appropriate to say that this amendment would effectively create grants or additional entitlement to universal credit solely for victims of domestic abuse. While the Bill demonstrates the Government’s commitment to supporting victims of domestic abuse by introducing additional benefit entitlement, we would effectively be unfairly discriminating against all other vulnerable cohort groups who may be facing substantial challenges.
Instead of extensively altering the universal credit system, we should look at how else we can support individuals who have to flee from abusive partners. We have already brought forward changes to universal credit that will help claimants manage their debt in a more sustainable way. From April, claimants will have the option to spread 25 universal credit payments over 24 months, giving them more flexibility over the payments of their universal credit award. We are also reducing the normal maximum rate of deductions in UC from 30% to 25% of a claimant’s standard allowance. These changes, coupled with deferrals of up to three months available for advance repayments, mean that all universal credit claimants can take home more of their award and have greater control over their income.
Amendment 72 seeks to provide a period of grace for survivors of domestic abuse, so that they are exempt from the application of the benefit cap for a period of 12 months when a UC claim is being considered. The benefit cap seeks to restore fairness between those receiving benefits and taxpayers, and provides an incentive to move into work where possible. I acknowledge the difficulties that domestic abuse survivors face, particularly when preparing to move on from a refuge, where their benefits are unlikely to be limited by the benefit cap. There are limited examples of periods of grace in legislation. There are considerable challenges to delivering them because people’s circumstances change, and can change again across the period of grace. Accordingly, the Government are reluctant to add to the number of grace periods and the inherent complexity they bring, particularly if they overlap with each other.
Victims of domestic abuse are not afforded easements in the benefit cap policy. Instead, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned, support is available through discretionary housing payments. Funding for DHPs is provided to local authorities to enable them to protect the most vulnerable claimants. While the allocation of this funding is at local authority discretion, the DWP has strengthened guidance to ensure that individuals or families fleeing domestic abuse are considered a priority group. Support through DHPs will be an advantage in a wider range of circumstances for domestic abuse survivors, due to the flexibilities afforded to local authorities in administering them. Such payments can be immediately available. The Government will make £140 million available to local authorities for the next financial year.
That concludes my remarks. I am not sure if I have reassured the noble Baroness. She had three further questions. She asked whether a DWP Minister would meet with Women’s Aid. I can certainly make that request. She asked for an update on the spare room subsidy judgment. I do not have one, but I shall see if I can get it for her. She also asked me to raise something with the Secretary of State, which I did not manage to write down. If she can remind me of that, I shall do it. Otherwise, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response to this group of amendments, in particular to Amendments 72 and 102, to which I have added my name. I also thank her for her reassurance that local authorities will be given clear encouragement to prioritise the needs of domestic abuse victims, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, requested. Can she ensure that national statistics on the number of such cases accepted and rejected in each year will be counted and made public? Visible success for the Government’s preferred approach may serve as encouragement to those facing the unenviable decision of whether they can afford to flee their abuser’s home.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, and also the Minister. Noble Lords have enriched the arguments but, given the time, I will not go over what they said. I will not try to come back on the Minister’s arguments because it feels a bit like Groundhog Day. I am disappointed, however, that the noble Baroness did not acknowledge the point that I and my noble friend Lord Rooker underlined, as did others: there is a real tension between social security policy and domestic abuse policy. The policies that she is so committed to in this Bill will be undermined by DWP policies. I hope that at the very least she will take back to the DWP the concerns that have been raised today.
I thank the Minister for saying she will try to arrange for Women’s Aid to meet the DWP Minister to talk about training. As for panic rooms, will the noble Baroness have words with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about what has happened and why no action has been taken in response to that judgment? Time is ticking past—we really should have action by now.
My noble friend Lady Sherlock asked a couple of very specific questions about the Minister’s position, and I wonder whether she could write in response. I think I will leave it at that.
I take the point of my noble friend Lord Rooker that it would have been good to have been able to vote on this issue. However, there are so many amendments that noble colleagues want to vote on that I realise it was not possible. That should not mean that Ministers think we do not attach great importance to the arguments that have been made today. I just hope that the Minister will take those arguments to the DWP and see, behind the scenes, if something can be done. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
11: Clause 12, page 7, line 13, leave out “and not more than ten”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would remove the upper limit for members of the Commissioner’s advisory board.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I feel a sense of frustration. There are so many issues that one wants to pursue, but it is not the first Bill where we will experience that. In Committee, we had a series of amendments regarding the role of the domestic abuse commissioner. Almost all of them were concerned with ensuring that the job is not so constructed as to preclude the commissioner making her own decisions on how to go about her work. I put it that way to distinguish it from the content of the work.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, put it very succinctly. He said that the whole thrust of certain clauses is a worry because it appears that the Secretary of State wants to pull all the levers. Our debates largely boiled down to the commissioner’s autonomy. I did not entirely follow the assessment of the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson; he said that our amendments focused on independence but then set about how the commissioner should fulfil the role. Independence was a particular focus on this part of the Bill, although naturally noble Lords had been keen to draw attention to a variety of issues. That tension has been a bit of an issue today, of course, but that is perhaps by the by.
Independence is a hugely important component of the role. The Government have been arguing today that that is so in resisting some amendments; they certainly did that in Committee. It is a component, as far as possible, given that the commissioner’s position is that of a statutory officeholder funded by the Secretary of State with no separate legal persona. The framework agreement between the commissioner and the Secretary of State will be very important in this regard.
As well as the commissioner’s freedom to select her own staff—following due process, of course—in Committee we had quite extensive debate about the advisory board. Different noble Lords argued for members of the board with particular backgrounds and experience. The Bill provides for at least six members and spells out whom each of the six is to represent. I have to say that the term “represent” still troubles me. I think there is a danger of muddling representation and advice. The maximum under the Bill is 10 members. Why? Clearly, there is a huge range of problems and situations relevant to domestic abuse and so a range of individuals and organisations with a range of experience and expertise, including experience of the whole sector and its interconnecting parts, is needed.
In our view, the commissioner should have the scope —and this is a matter of her autonomy—to appoint such a board to advise her, or, in the future, him, as she considers appropriate. At this stage, I am not arguing with the interests that the six are to represent under the Bill, although I remain concerned that they will be the Secretary of State’s pick, but if the commissioner wishes to bring in more than four further people in the capacity of advisory board members she should be able to do so. There seems no good reason to impose the restriction on numbers.
In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said that this was
“to ensure that the board can operate effectively and efficiently.”—[Official Report, 27/1/21; col. 1711.]
That is what we all want, but efficiency and effectiveness is about more than numbers. It is about what each member contributes and how the board as a whole operates and that should be a matter for the commissioner. The commissioner can and may well seek advice from elsewhere. I dare say she can bring people into board meetings as a one-off. I am not sure whether she can co-opt—I cannot see that there is a restriction on that. However, those individuals should be afforded the respect of a permanent role if that is warranted and not be limited as the board proposes. This issue encapsulates our concerns about the commissioner’s autonomy and independence and that is why we have chosen it as the one to pursue at this stage. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has brought this matter back to the attention of your Lordships on Report. Clearly, the idea of an advisory board is welcome and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I have no objection to the range of interests which the Bill specifies must be represented on the board itself.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, although it is not the subject of the amendment, I am still very surprised by the term “representative”. I know that this is an advisory board, rather than a governance board, but having the notion of representatives is very bad corporate governance. People should be appointed for what they can contribute, not for whom they represent. I hope that that does not make it more difficult to have an effective advisory board.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on the numbers to be appointed. I accept that 10 is a reasonable figure, but there may be circumstances where the commissioner would want to go above that. I fail to see why we cannot leave it to her good sense to be able to do so, if she wants to. I hope the Government will accept this very sensible and modest amendment.
My Lords, I am pleased to have this opportunity to support the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on the role of the commissioner. Making sure it is autonomous and has some independence in decision-making with regards to the team and staff in management positions will enable her to be more effective, given the diversity of those in the women’s sector who undertake these very important areas of work.
I want to support this because the advisory board, management team and other decision-making structures must consider it necessary to embed diversity to strengthen their standing and credibility. More importantly, the presence of a diverse group of experts—and I use this word very carefully; it is not necessarily about representation, and should not suggest that people from diverse backgrounds are not going to be able to provide expertise—will, at all levels of decision-making, convey a very powerful message that the commissioner is committed to safeguarding the services for all survivors with the relevant expertise of different organisations. However she chooses to do that, it is important that she has diverse and meaningful experts who can inform and instruct the work of the commissioner.
As my noble friend Lady Hamwee has outlined, this is a modest amendment which gives the commissioner a bit more leeway when it comes to appointments to the advisory board. More than this, it reflects the autonomy that we feel she should have. That is why we have picked this particular amendment as something that represents that.
Circumstances will change, as will the person who inhabits the role of commissioner. New disciplines and new ways of tackling the scourge of domestic abuse will emerge. In the Bill, the commissioner has some discretion on whom she appoints to her advisory board, which must have
“not fewer than six and not more than ten members”.
But what if she—or, in the future he—discovers someone else who could make an invaluable contribution but she already has the maximum number of 10 specified in the Bill? Does she take them on in different ways or co-opt them? Are they representatives? As several noble Lords have said, it is not necessarily a representative role that she needs; it is advice. She is there to advise, so why would we hamper her in that way?
I hope the Minister can explain the logic behind what seems to many noble Lords to be an arbitrary figure. If he cannot, can he please accede to this modest amendment.
Amendment 11 would remove the upper limit of “not more than ten” for members of the domestic abuse commissioner’s advisory board. In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked
“why put an upper limit in legislation?”—[Official Report, 27/1/21; col. 1706.]
This question was supported by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who clearly also felt that a domestic abuse commissioner should be sufficiently trusted to decide for her or himself how many people they need on their own advisory board over the lower limit of six provided for in the Bill.
Although it was a straightforward question, reading in Hansard the Government’s response in Committee still leaves one unclear as to the answer. We were told by the Government that no more than 10 members would
“ensure that the board remains focused and provides clear advice to the commissioner.”
What is the Government’s evidence that 11 or 12 members, for example, would lead to an advisory board that is unfocused and provides confusing advice to the commissioner? No evidence at all was provided.
The Government then told us that a maximum membership of 10 was
“appropriate to ensure that the board can operate effectively and efficiently.”
Once again, not one piece of evidence was advanced as to why 11 or 12 would result in an advisory board that did not operate effectively or efficiently.
Unless it is a government desire to control as much as possible from the centre, what is the reason for the Government pulling the purely arbitrary figure of a maximum of 10 out of the hat, with the consequence that the limit on the size of the domestic abuse commissioner’s advisory board is a fixed, rigid and permanent number, laid down in law with not even an iota of flexibility?
Later on in their response, the Government said that they could
“leave it to the good judgement of the commissioner to appoint suitably qualified individuals”.
So the Government have confidence in the commissioner appointing suitably qualified individuals to her own advisory board, but not the confidence to let the commissioner decide how many such suitably qualified individuals she needs on her advisory board, over and above the minimum of six.
The Government also told us that they needed to
“avoid creating an unwieldy board which cannot then provide effective support to the commissioner.”
So the Government have so little confidence in the domestic abuse commissioner that they think that she, or a successor, would otherwise create an unwieldy advisory board unable to provide them with effective support.
However, the Government’s argument in Committee then did a complete U-turn. Having told us that there must be a rigid and fixed maximum number on the advisory board laid down by law, they then told us that the maximum membership of 10
“does not preclude the commissioner from also seeking advice from other sources”,
“the commissioner will be required to establish a victims and survivors advisory group to ensure that it engages directly with victims and survivors in its work”,
and, finally, that the commissioner
“may also establish any other groups as she sees fit.”—[Official Report, 27/1/21; col. 1711.]
So while the Government cannot trust the commissioner not to overdo it on the maximum membership of her own advisory board, they presumably trust the commissioner not to overdo seeking advice from other sources, not to overdo establishing a victims and survivors advisory group, and not to overdo establishing however many other groups she sees fit. The necessity for a fixed, rigid, permanent, statutory, government-determined maximum number, to be imposed on the commissioner for her and her successors’ own advisory board, just does not add up. That is why the Government could give no coherent, credible, evidence-backed explanation in Committee of the need for a statutory maximum, or why that maximum should be 10. The Government really ought to have a rethink on this issue.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for setting out why she has tabled this amendment again, which would remove the upper limit of 10 advisory board members to be appointed by the domestic abuse commissioner. It is certainly important that the advisory board should be representative of a broad range of different groups and experts who have responsibilities for responding to domestic abuse. However, the Government submit that we need to limit the numbers of the board, not because we want to fetter the discretion of the commissioner but to ensure that the board is sufficiently large to be representative but not so large that it becomes unwieldy.
We consider that the maximum membership of 10 is the right number to ensure that the board can discharge its functions efficiently and effectively. I appreciate the acknowledgement by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that 10 is a reasonable number, even if he supports the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. This upper limit does not, of course, stop the commissioner from also seeking advice from other experts, but the advisory board itself needs to be of a manageable size and small enough to provide focused support to her. To answer the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, others could of course attend the advisory board meetings if the commissioner so wished, even if they were not members of it.
As I indicated in Committee, a member of the advisory board could represent the interests of more than one group, ensuring an even wider range of representation. For example, she or he could represent the interests of victims of domestic abuse while also representing the interests of specialist charities.
As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, noted, in addition to the board, the commissioner will be required through her terms and conditions of employment to establish a victims and survivors advisory group to engage directly with victims and survivors in its work. I hope noble Lords will appreciate the importance of putting victims and survivors at the centre of that work. The commissioner may also establish any other groups as she sees fit, so could—as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, asks—seek additional advice if she wanted to do so.
So the Government remain of the view that Clause 12 strikes the right balance between setting out certain minimum requirements regarding the membership of the advisory board while affording sufficient latitude to the commissioner to appoint one which can support her in the exercise of her functions. However, we would certainly be happy to keep this under review. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have supported this amendment. As my noble friend described, circumstances can change. She put the position very clearly.
The noble Lord has just said that the matter will be kept “under review”. I realised as this short debate went on that this was one of the very rare occasions when I wished that the matter was dealt with in regulations rather than in primary legislation, because it would have been so much easier to change the numbers through secondary legislation.
Despite comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and by me, the Minister used the terms “representative” and “represent” throughout his response. This is precisely something that continues to concern me—and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, as he said. The Minister said that the Government do not want to fetter the commissioner’s discretion, but, of course, that is exactly what the clause does.
The dynamics of groups is something which interests me—how a group develops ways of working and works most creatively. Other experts who may be asked to give advice would not be part of a cohesive unit. I think that a cohesive unit where members are able to spark off one another and bring to the table various parts of experience—including of life, as well as of the direct subject matter—makes for the most effectiveness. Sometimes disagreeing makes for effectiveness, too. Of course, a huge group will function in a different way. I am not anticipating a very big group. I have chaired for quite a long time a group of 25; that was too many, but it was too many for the particular task rather than too many, period.
I am actually more gloomy about this than when I started, particularly having heard the emphasis on representation. I can see that we are not going to change the Government’s mind, but perhaps I might ask: after keeping the number under review, if the Government think they have got it wrong, what mechanism—other than a new Bill, or finding a slot in a Bill within which it could be in scope—could they use to implement what they might think was a better number? I do not think I ought to ask the Minister to respond to that now, but a letter following today’s debate would be welcome. I can see he is not leaping up, which is probably wise—oh, he is.
For the benefit of other noble Lords as well, I am happy to provide a quick response. We will certainly take that point away and discuss it further. The noble Baroness is right that as it is in primary legislation then primary legislation would be needed. The Government submit that the number we are putting forward is reasonable. If the experience of this and future commissioners suggests that it is not then we would of course discuss that with them, and it would be a matter for Parliament to change the primary legislation if it so wished. Still, for the reasons that I set out, the Government consider that the number that we are putting forward, 10, will not bring about the problems that noble Lords have anticipated.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 12. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 15: Duty to co-operate with Commissioner
12: Clause 15, page 9, line 42, at end insert—
“(r) the Independent Office for Police Conduct;(s) the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would extend the list of public authorities which have a duty to co-operate with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to include the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
My Lords, government Amendment 14 is very welcome. Clearly the call for the commissioner to have powers to collect information on domestic homicide through reviews of such homicides has been heeded. Domestic homicide reviews will give the commissioner a hugely valuable picture of deaths occurring as a result of domestic violence. They bring together the statutory and non-statutory partners to learn lessons and, hopefully, prevent deaths in future.
However, as the commissioner-designate says, actions can drift over time, and there is little accountability for implementation. Although statutory guidance says that a copy of each domestic homicide report should be lodged with the Home Office, it is often omitted because there is no legislative backing to the guidance. Someone needs to grasp that issue firmly, put all this disparate information together and drive the changes that are needed from the lessons learned.
Thanks to government Amendment 14, all domestic homicide reports must now be sent to the commissioner. As well as domestic homicide reports, though, there are other valuable sources of information into homicides and suicides—other reviews that hold vital lessons. Amendment 16 would spread the information net wider to incorporate reviews or investigations into deaths where domestic abuse had been identified as a contributory factor. Such reviews could come from any number of sources: safeguarding adult reviews, serious case reviews, NHS serious investigations, misconduct where a death was involved and so on.
Prevention of future deaths reports, issued by the coroner’s office, are hugely important in building up a picture of how things have gone wrong and can be improved in the future. Although this information resides on the coroner’s website, there is no systematic way to interrogate it. While recommendations are made, reports to the commissioner would enable her to correlate them and guide future best practice. The commissioner is anxious to preserve the independence of the Chief Coroner, which has been removed from the list of proposed public authorities required to co-operate with the commissioner, so that judicial independence is not compromised in any way. This is why proposed new subsection (3) requires copies of the coroner’s prevention of future deaths reports to be lodged with the Secretary of State and commissioner. Any public authority specified in Clause 15(3) would be covered; this is the subject of my Amendment 12.
During Committee, we proposed in Amendment 51 that Her Majesty’s Prison Service and the National Probation Service be added to the list of organisations with a duty to co-operate with the commissioner. It was subsequently confirmed that they already fall under this duty, as part of the Ministry of Justice, but there are a couple of authorities that the commissioner would find particularly useful to have added to the list. The Independent Office for Police Conduct will occasionally look at allegations of misconduct in relation to a death where domestic abuse has been a factor, while the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman will deal with deaths in prison or after release, when a victim or perpetrator of domestic abuse has been involved. These are two poignant examples of where the death of a victim can point to how such a tragedy can be avoided and circumstances can be better handled in future.
It is important to note that there is no intention of creating a blame culture here, but instead to learn lessons by producing thematic reviews that inform policy and practice. Every amendment in the group will strengthen the arm of the Secretary of State and the commissioner to do their job and design better systems to prevent systematic failure in the future. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise briefly in support of Amendments 12 and 16, to which I have added my name. In Committee, the Minister was constructive and sympathetic, as she invariably is when considering improvements to the quality, accuracy and timeliness of data, so we are grateful for government Amendment 14. She has followed through, as she promised she would in Committee, and we thank her for it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, has explained clearly what is behind Amendments 12 and 16, so I do not need to go into more detail. It is also clear that the commissioner herself has requested these additions and she is in the business of trying to pull together multiple strands of information, in a way that has not been done before. She is not learning on the job, but to some extent learning as she settles into the job, about the greater complexity that there is and the different strands of information that she will need to make informed decisions and give the Government good advice. It is a direct request from her to fill what she feels are some important gaps in the data that she requires.
The two key benefits are fairly self-evident. The first is to ensure that all these recommendations are recorded and assessed, in particular to see if the recommended follow-up actions are being taken. The second is to draw out the key themes and lessons being learned in order to have a proactive, preventive, joined-up approach, which we clearly do not have at the moment. That is a large part of the genesis of this Bill. The commissioner’s request is extremely simple: please support and accept these amendments, and act. She will then move swiftly to build a more informed, accurate and insightful understanding, which will enable her to do her job as well as we all want her to.
The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove.
My Lords, on average, two women a week are killed in the UK by a current or former partner. While the figures have dropped slightly over the past decade, they remain unacceptably high. I am pleased that the Government have given their support to my amendment to create a standalone offence of non-fatal strangulation, as we will see later on on Report. This is truly a lifesaving change which I hope will prevent many victims losing their lives as a result of domestic abuse.
Each one of these deaths is an absolute tragedy, and perhaps even more tragic is the fact that we are failing to learn the vital lessons needed to prevent other victims losing their lives. We owe it to all the families who have lost a loved one to ensure that at the very least, their experience will help to prevent future deaths. That is why I support Amendments 12 and 16 to extend the powers of the independent domestic abuse commissioner to create a new oversight mechanism for domestic homicide and suicide, and I call on other Peers to do the same. The oversight mechanism will bring together all the reports and reviews that take place after someone has been murdered or takes their own life as a result of domestic abuse into one central place in a more systematic way. Right now, a huge number of reports are made, ranging from domestic homicide reviews, coroners’ prevention of future death reports and safeguarding adult reviews, but there is no means of bringing them all together in one place. It would also provide a much more robust accountability framework to ensure that individual recommendations are acted on. In too many instances, no processes are in place to ensure that once a report is produced, its recommendations are followed up. The new mechanism would enable the commissioner to identify key themes across investigations to help target the key policy changes needed to prevent future deaths.
I want to tell noble Lords about Anne-Marie Nield, whose death has helped to drive through the campaign for a standalone offence of non-fatal strangulation. What happened after her death makes a powerful case for why a stronger oversight mechanism that would bring together the lessons from a range of reports, not just the domestic homicide reviews, is needed to prevent future deaths. Anne-Marie died in 2016 during a sustained assault by her partner, who had previously subjected her to non-fatal strangulation. The officers who dealt with the previous incidents failed to appreciate the significance of strangulation as a risk factor. No support was offered to her and no referral was made to MARAC. The DHR carried out after her death identified a significant number of errors and omissions by the police. The recommendations then made were accepted in their entirety by Greater Manchester Police.
However, in 2019 the coroner noted in her prevention of future deaths report that not all of those recommendations had been implemented. That was more than two years later. The DHR did not address the issue of non-fatal strangulation, but the coroner did. An examination of this in detail, when it was raised by the family at the inquest, resulted in the officers who dealt with Anne-Marie being questioned about their understanding of the matter. The coroner noted that no reference was made to non-fatal strangulation in the GMP domestic abuse policy and that the police officers involved with Anne-Marie failed to appreciate its significance as a specific risk for domestic homicide. In 2019, the response to the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report stated that the force’s domestic abuse policy needed to be updated and would include non-fatal strangulation as a heightened risk factor. It is not known whether this has been done. Later that year, the Centre for Women’s Justice requested sight of the GMP domestic abuse policy under the Freedom of Information Act, but approximately 90% of it was redacted.
This clearly shows the huge gaps between different reviews and why it is important for us to go well beyond the lessons provided in DHRs and, crucially, arm the new domestic abuse commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, with the powers needed to create the new mechanism, to provide oversight to ensure that key recommendations and lessons are taken forward. For the sake of the families, it is so important that these amendments to give the duty to the domestic abuse commissioner are made to the Bill.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport.
My Lords, I have added my name to and speak in support of Amendment 12, which would extend the list of public authorities with a duty to co-operate with the domestic abuse commissioner. Amendment 14 would place a new duty on public authorities that carry out reviews and investigations into deaths in which domestic abuse has been identified as a contributory factor to notify the Secretary of State for the Home Office and the office of the domestic abuse commissioner upon completion and to provide them with a copy of their findings.
This oversight by the domestic abuse commissioner is intended to ensure a more systematic collection of investigations into suicides and homicides in which domestic abuse is identified as a contributory factor, together with a robust accountability framework to ensure that individual recommendations are acted upon and key themes across investigations are identified to help target the key policy changes needed to prevent future deaths.
The pandemic has created so many problems for our society, notwithstanding the area of domestic abuse. Coronavirus may exacerbate triggers and lockdown may restrict access to support or escape; it may even curtail measures some people take to keep their own violence under control.
In 2011 domestic homicide reviews were established on a statutory basis under Section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act. It was one of the most difficult and disturbing aspects of my role as a councillor when I had to take part in such a review following the death of one of my constituents. It was a devastating time for the community and left long-running consequences as we searched our souls to see what more anyone could have done to prevent such a tragedy. In hard terms, what can be done by agreeing these amendments is to establish a clear oversight and accountability mechanism, led by the independent domestic abuse commissioner, which would help to drive effective implementation and share lessons nationally in the long as well as the short term.
My Lords, we return now to the debate we had in Committee about the role of the domestic abuse commissioner in helping all relevant agencies to learn the lessons from domestic abuse-related homicides and suicides so that we can avoid such deaths in future.
In Committee I undertook to consider further amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. We agree that the commissioner has an important oversight role to play in this area, and government Amendment 14 will support it by placing a duty on those responsible for carrying out a domestic homicide review under Section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 to send a copy of the report of the review to the commissioner.
As I indicated in Committee, we are not persuaded that it is necessary to extend this requirement to the other homicide reviews listed in Amendment 16. Given that the bodies involved are required to engage and feed into domestic homicide reviews, we think the lessons will be captured through this process. Where necessary, the commissioner can also use her powers under Clause 15 to request relevant information from the public authorities subject to the duty to co-operate.
Amendment 12 seeks to add to the list of public authorities subject to the duty to co-operate. We agree in principle that the IOPC, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, should be added to the list. Clause 15(4) includes a power to add to the list of specified public authorities by regulations, and we propose to exercise this power in relation to the IOPC. The IOPC has come late to the party, as it were, so we consider it preferable to use the regulation-making route to allow time for the IOPC and the commissioner’s office to work through the implications for the IOPC of adding it to the list of specified public authorities.
As for the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, I must point out that it is not a statutory agency, and therefore there are difficulties with referring to it in statute. On a more practical level, the ombudsman routinely publishes its fatal incident investigation reports, so they are accessible to the commissioner and others. That said, there is scope for discussions between the commissioner and the ombudsman about how the flow of relevant information might be improved.
As I indicated at the start of my remarks, we consider tackling domestic homicides a top priority and we intend to work closely with the commissioner on this issue. The changes being made through Amendment 14 and our commitment to add the IOPC to the list of relevant public authorities by regulations are only part of the wider programme of work taking place to tackle domestic homicides. I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, would agree that these are important advances and that accordingly she would be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and to the noble Baronesses, Lady Newlove and Lady Wilcox, for their very knowledgeable contributions, particularly the poignant case of Anne-Marie Nield, provided by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, which just illustrates how important it is that we learn the lessons.
I am very grateful to the Minister—she is clearly a Minister who listens and works out what is logically possible and what is not. It perhaps would not have been realistic for her to say, “Oh yes, we’ll do all of that, that’s no problem at all”, but what she has said is extremely encouraging, particularly regarding the IOPC. I am very grateful to her particularly for the way that she has gone more than half way, and her actions, I am sure, will make a very big difference to the ability of the domestic abuse commissioner to do her job—and, indeed, to the Secretary of State. I have great hopes for what the commissioner is going to achieve with all of this. We have certainly loaded on her enough information, so I hope that it is not going to overwhelm her, but I really feel heartened that she is going to have the tools to do the job, and I am very grateful. I respectfully wish to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 13. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
13: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to co-operate: children awaiting NHS treatment
(1) The Commissioner must within 6 months after section 15 comes into force issue a request under that section to the NHS bodies in England mentioned in subsection (2) to co-operate with the Commissioner to secure that the objectives set out in subsection (3) are met within 12 months after that section comes into force and continue to be met.(2) The bodies are—(a) every clinical commissioning group established under section 14D of the National Health Service Act 2006, and(b) every other NHS body in England (as defined in section 15(7)) whose co-operation the Commissioner thinks is necessary to secure that the objective set out in subsection (3) is met. (3) The objectives are that—(a) where a child who has been referred for NHS care ortreatment in the area (“Area A”) of a clinical commissioning group moves, as a result of being affected by domestic abuse, to the area (“Area B”) of another clinical commissioning group, the child receives, so far as possible, that care or treatment no later than it would have been received in Area A, and(b) where a child who has been referred for NHS care or treatment in the area of a clinical commissioning group (“Area A”) moves, as a result of being affected by domestic abuse, to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, the NHS bodies in question take the necessary steps (including co-operating with bodies exercising health functions for the area to which the child has moved) to secure, so far as possible, that the child receives that care or treatment no later than it would have been received in Area A.”
My Lords, this small group brings together two amendments that I raised in Committee, both relating to the interests of children in circumstances where they flee domestic abuse with a parent or guardian to a new area. Amendment 13 tackles access to NHS treatment and Amendment 76 concerns access to school places.
On Amendment 13, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, raised the issue of health being a devolved matter. What happens, he asked, when a child flees from England to Wales or vice versa? Hestia lawyers, who have been very helpful in this whole process, have redrafted this amendment to tackle this point, so I hope that this is now satisfactory in legal terms. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, will probably have more to say on this point.
As always seems to be the case in this place, extremely knowledgeable Members of your Lordships’ House enhanced the debate with their experience and knowledge in Committee. My noble friend Lady Brinton gave a harrowing real-life example of a family forced to flee, and persistent problems of the children with medical complaints going to the back of the queue each time they were forced to move again by the perpetrator. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke about how medical and mental problems seemingly unrelated to the stress of living in a household where abuse was going on arose. The Minister talked about the duties and responsibilities of the NHS to treat people in priority need, but, frankly, that is no consolation if your need is not ostensibly a top priority and you never stay on a waiting list long enough to get seen—or even, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, to get a diagnosis.
Another point raised by my noble friend Lady Brinton in Committee was to inform the House that the Armed Forces covenant already allowed for this prioritisation to happen for Armed Forces families required to move. I hope the noble Lord the Minister will have looked into this and can tell the House, if it is not practically possible to do the same thing for children fleeing abuse, why it is not. As your Lordships know, where there is a will, there is a way.
Amendment 76 has not changed, and the need for priority admission for children forced to flee to a new area to get schooling has not changed either. Amendment 76 amends the schools’ admissions codes in England and Wales to ensure that children fleeing abuse get the same priority as looked-after children in getting a school place. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, revealed that it takes on average six to eight months for a child to find a new school place on moving area. In his response, the Minister talked about a consultation on the schools’ admissions code to improve the in-year admissions process and fair access protocols for vulnerable children moving in-year. I appreciate that the Government want to get this right and to make it fair for all. Those of us with local government backgrounds or who have been MPs will know just what lengths some parents are prepared to go to secure a place for their child at what they perceive as a good school.
In his remarks in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked also about food parcels and the double disadvantage faced by children without a registered school place. From this week, most children will be back at school, so I presume that food parcels will cease, though that does beg the question about children who test positive and are required to self-isolate. Will they get food parcels if they qualify for free school meals? I do not expect the Minister to know the answer to this off the cuff—though I would be impressed if he did—so perhaps he would be so kind as to write to me. But these vulnerable children with no school place will not qualify for free school meals or for anything else. I ask the Minister: how fast can this be sorted out? When will this new code be implemented, and what is the Secretary of State prepared to do as an interim measure to negate the extra disadvantages these children face on a daily basis? I beg to move.
My Lords, I appreciate the time, but I am passionate about Amendment 13, hence my name being on it alongside that of the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt, Lady Brinton and Lady Meacher.
The reason why I am so intrigued by how we treat children suffering from domestic abuse and the effects of having to move around in terms of getting healthcare goes back to when I lost my husband in 2007 and my three daughters were witnesses to that horrific crime. I remember trying to get my daughters some health support from my local commissioner and, failing that, to try to get my youngest daughter to see a therapist due to lack of sleep as a result of the trauma that she suffered. At that time, the response was that nobody could be fast-tracked and that everybody went through the same door. The knowledge of how difficult it is to cope with trauma has never left me—and I did not have to cope with domestic abuse. I was not living in a refuge. I was just trying to do my best to protect my three daughters, who still suffer to this day.
I am really concerned about how we treat children who are getting no services, or services are being delayed, through moving to refuges in different areas. Children fleeing abuse desperately need fast access to healthcare. I appreciate that the Government are trying to get this right, but protected status on an NHS waiting list is necessary for these vulnerable children. As I said, I had difficulty although I did not live with domestic abuse and nor was I fleeing, but the trauma of not being able to get access to the waiting list has never left me.
How do these families which are struggling to get there feel? This is, after all, about individuals—about humanity—so I am grateful to a case study from Hestia. A family is in a refuge; the daughter needs speech therapy appointments and has been put on a list, but the list goes on and on. Azra—the names have been changed—had turned five years old and they were preparing to leave the house because they had to move. No housing options were available in their local area. The window of opportunity to treat her speech development was running out. The mother did not know what to do next for her family.
This is not just a case of receiving medical care for trauma or anything else. It is about having access to care in your local area, wherever you are moved to. I ask noble Lords to look at the amendment and realise how we so easily take our healthcare for granted. In the pandemic, we have seen what brave and heroic people we have in the NHS. I ask the Minister to look at this amendment and do the best she possibly can for a young child who is going through trauma and is being moved around, and for a mother who is trying to get the best possible treatment for their health.
My Lords, I whole-heartedly support Amendments 13 and 76, to which I have added my name. I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for tabling these amendments and speaking so powerfully to them.
The key point about Amendment 13 is that a child in need of NHS care really must have that treatment in a timely way, even if the family have had to move to a different NHS trust area. Having worked in mental health for many years, I refer to the point made so powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. If a child needs psychological help—in this case because of the domestic abuse which they have witnessed or experienced—then the timeliness of that therapy is absolutely vital if the child is not to develop serious mental health problems that are going to be very difficult to remediate later on. I am focusing on mental health issues, but long delays are incredibly serious for a child in need of help with their physical health.
Amendment 13 is not onerous for the Government. It simply places a responsibility on the commissioner, within six months of the implementation of the Bill, to work with clinical commissioning groups and other NHS bodies to resolve the problem of rapid access to NHS treatment for these children. That is all the amendment is asking for. I hope that the Minister can accept the aims of the amendment; I am sure that she will. Maybe she can indicate how the Government plan to meet those aims if not by this amendment, although I hope that they will do so by accepting it.
On Amendment 76, to which I have added my name, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, has cogently argued the case for it, so I shall be brief. I hope that the Minister will take note of the support of the commissioner for the amendment or similar actions to provide
“equivalent priority access to education for children who are victims of domestic abuse.”
While Amendment 13 relates to health, this amendment relates to education. Our aim here is to ensure that these seriously disadvantaged children, having experienced domestic abuse, do not have their disadvantage exaggerated through enforced non-attendance at school. My goodness, we have heard so much about the importance of children attending school when it comes to Covid, but it is even more important, I suggest, for children who have been affected by domestic abuse.
This modest amendment could transform the lives of those children, yet it would surely not impose unreasonable demands on schools. No doubt the commissioner will want to look at the impact on schools to make sure that there was not a problem, but the amendment leaves it to the Secretary of State to decide how the school admissions code should be amended to ensure that those vulnerable children can attend school. I hope that the Minister can respond positively to Amendment 76.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as outlined in the register. I am pleased to follow other noble Lords who have made such cogent cases for both amendments in this group. They are designed to ensure that children who move home, away from their current school and health service area because of domestic abuse are not disadvantaged in access to relevant schooling close to their new residence and, as far as is practicable, receive NHS treatment no later than they would have done had they remained at their previous address. This is not about queue jumping, it is about staying at the same level in the queue when you move.
It is intended that there will be a new health and social care Act this year. Is it feasible not only to enshrine Amendment 13 in this Bill but to reflect the principle in the revised health and social care Act? This would enable the Secretary of State for Health to request that all NHS providers aim to meet standards of fair access for children who move home if they have suffered abuse.
With regard to schooling, it is very hard for children to move out of the area to a new school, losing their previous friends, as a result of abuse. If they then have to travel long distances from their new home to a new school, it makes it very difficult to attend after-school clubs and make local friends if their neighbours are attending more local schools. I have seen this happen all over the country.
For this reason, I support Amendment 76 unreservedly. It is essential that children make new friends and study locally to their home to promote social interaction with other local children and access to clubs and out-of-hours activities associated with schools. These networks are essential to promote children’s mental health, particularly those who have suffered abuse.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Burt and the noble Baronesses, Lady Newlove, Lady Meacher and Lady Watkins, for their careful and thoughtful introduction to, and support for, both the amendments. I also thank the Minister for his comments at the end of Committee on the Bill, but, as others have said, it is certainly easier for the Government to work with Amendment 13, because the responsibility falls on the commissioner to work with the NHS—whether it is CCGs or hospital trusts.
The key point for me is that there is already the ability to choose your hospital, which we do through NHS e-referral services. For these children, fleeing domestic abuse and probably being moved on at extremely short notice, the real crisis is that they will plummet to the bottom of a long waiting list at exactly the crisis moment when they will need support.
I urge the Minister to consider that particular problem. I appreciate all the arrangements that the Government have made. We shall see what is in the NHS Bill, as and when this is published, but this very small, particular group of children need very particular support. This is absolutely the case for children applying to child and adolescent mental health services, where we know that there is already an extreme shortage of access to these services. The one thing that is true about children fleeing domestic abuse is that they are likely to be traumatised. Delaying their treatment further will give them very serious problems.
On the schools issue, I think it is an excellent notion to use the same duties as for looked-after children. I also want to make the point that I made about NHS services in Committee. Military children should also be prioritised for school places when they move. This should apply also to children fleeing domestic abuse.
In certain areas where schools are full, a six to eight-month gap to find a school place is not uncommon. This exacerbates the problem of the children not getting any part of their lives back to normal. I appreciate that processes and protocols take time, but there must be some interim measures to help these children. There is no doubt that this Government understand the importance of getting children back into school. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has said, the impact of Covid and the pressure on schools to reopen as quickly as is safe is completely understandable. These children’s lives are being traumatised by the pandemic—although perhaps not as severely as those of elderly adults. They need a transformation. They need access to school and medical services.
So I urge the Minister to agree to these amendments and ensure that the processes which need to be set up behind the scenes between the commissioner, NHS services and the DfE can happen.