Motion to Take Note
That the Grand Committee takes note of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, laid before the House on 17 May.
Relevant document: 2nd Report from the International Agreements Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)
My Lords, in moving this take-note debate, I say first on a personal level how welcome it is, as we will hear shortly from the Government, for the Government to praise and table for ratification anything containing the word “Europe”, in particular something emanating from the Council of Europe.
There cannot be a single Brit, let alone Member of your Lordships’ House, who does not feel justifiably proud of the role our country played in the creation and work of the Council of Europe in promoting human rights across a continent previously divided by wars and the denial of human rights. I always feel a particular affinity with the council, because it was created in the year of my birth—although I think it has aged rather better than I have—and because of my father’s role as, literally, a foot soldier in the war, the outcome of which led to the determination never again to allow basic human rights to be trampled by the very state whose purpose should be to protect all its citizens. It is for this reason—besides keeping an eye on rogue states—that an international body is needed, since, sadly, we cannot always rely on Governments to respect this most fundamental duty. It is thus right that Russia has, since March, been removed from the Council of Europe.
I also say, on my behalf and not on behalf of the committee, which has not discussed this, how wrong it is for this Government to introduce legislation, a so-called Bill of Rights, that would actually diminish rights and potentially breach our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Claiming to be above the law of civilised nations not just threatens our citizens but harms our standing on the world stage.
But that was a personal statement. I turn to the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. First, I thank the members of the committee for their work on this. Two of them—the noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich—will speak shortly. I pay particular tribute to our legal adviser, Alex Horne, and our very able and capable clerk, Jennifer Martin-Kohlmorgen, who happens to be in the Room today, albeit wearing another hat. We are delighted that she is here and for all the work she does for our committee.
I will say two things on the convention: one very positive and one rather more negative, I am afraid. I will start on the positive. We are delighted that, 10 years on from the very month when the Government signed the convention, they have finally tabled it for ratification—not a moment too soon. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Gale, who has done probably more than anyone else in the House to keep pressure on the Government to make this move. It was she who sponsored what became the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017, requiring the Government to keep returning to explain why they had failed to ratify the deal. Perhaps, as someone who has known my noble friend Lady Gale for many a long year, I should have warned the Government never to take her on. Whenever she wants something, believe me, she gets it.
The reason why she pushed for earlier ratification was because the convention is good for women. It is about preventing violence, protecting women via training, safe custody or similar, prosecuting perpetrators, supporting victims and eliminating discrimination. What is not to like?
The International Agreements Committee welcomes ratification, even though it is a little late. But—it is a big but, and the negative that I must raise—the committee is deeply concerned about the reservation that the Government have added, to the detriment, as we see it, of the rights of migrant women. The exception the Government want affects a particular group of vulnerable victims of domestic abuse: those whose immigration status relies on that of their partner, in cases where it is the partner who is the perpetrator. These women have no independent right to reside here, and are thus faced with an unenviable choice: stay with the perpetrator—“Sleeping with the Enemy” is the film that comes to mind—and be able to remain in the country, or leave the perpetrator and lose her residency status. That is a choice that no woman should have to make; it is one the convention says she should not have to make, but our Government are opting out of the provision which would grant such victims the ability to get residency rights in certain circumstances.
The Government have given no reason for this opt-out. Indeed, they are close to misleading the House by saying that they are opting out because they are awaiting the results of a pilot, due this week, on the provision of support for migrant women victims. Although access to, for example, a refuge, might be important, what is much more important—and affects many more people—is that they could have to leave the country and perhaps leave their children, because leaving their partner means that they lose their right to live here.
As we know, it is only a minority of domestic abuse victims who need a refuge; many will simply move away from their partner to friends, family or to rent somewhere themselves. But for this group of abused women, even if they have the friends, family or resources to leave their partner, they risk deportation for the very act of leaving. This reinforces the power of the perpetrator and increases the risk faced by migrant victims. It flies in the face of the advice and expertise of the specialist led-by-and-for black and minority women’s organisations. More than 80 such organisations wrote to the Home Secretary about denying Article 59 protection, which would otherwise require the UK to grant residence to victims whose immigration status depended on their abusive partner, in certain circumstances.
The reservation flies in the face of the spirit of the convention, which is based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination. The opt-out cannot be right. Not only have the Government failed to explain why this protection is not needed for this group of victims but they have given no indication of when they will review or lift the reservation, or on what grounds they would refuse to lift it. We welcome the Minister filling this unenviable position at very short notice. I hope that he will have had time to find some good reasons to give the Committee when he comes to reply.
I raise one further point about the Government’s second reservation, or opt-out. The convention states that signatories may not apply a dual criminality requirement for certain offences, including sexual violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced abortion and sterilisation. However, the Government are entering a reservation which would retain the dual criminality requirement for sexual violence, forced abortion and sterilisation. The Explanatory Memorandum gives no explanation as to why these should remain subject to dual criminality, beyond the statement, which does not really make sense, that they tend to be crimes elsewhere. Again, could the Minister explain why the Government have selected these particular issues for such a carve-out?
I stress that, for the moment, we welcome that the Government signed this ground-breaking convention and that it is now being brought before us for ratification. However, we are at a loss as to why the Government should further lower their standing in the international community with this reservation, which is, of course, known to all the signatories. It will be very evident that they are failing to stand up for a particular group of migrant women suffering domestic violence. I beg to move.
My Lords, it has been just over 10 years since the UK signed the convention, and I welcome the Government’s announcement that it should finally be ratified by the end of July this year. I thank the Home Secretary, the many Ministers across government who have been involved, and Nimco Ali, the independent government adviser on tackling violence against women and girls, for getting us to this position. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for her tenacious work in pushing the Government to ratification.
I also take this opportunity to commend President Zelensky of Ukraine. Despite everything that is happening in his country, last Tuesday he signed into law a Bill ratifying the Istanbul convention. As he said when signing:
“Its main content is simple, but extremely important. It is a commitment to protect women from violence and various forms of discrimination.”
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and, no doubt, other noble Lords, I have questions about the reservations on Articles 44 and 59. My noble friend the Minister will have seen the correspondence from 80 organisations working with and for women, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred. There are concerns that placing these reservations, particularly on Article 59, risks the creation of a two-tier system, whereby migrant women are given a lesser status and fewer protections from violence, and that it may reinforce the power of the perpetrators and increase the risk faced by migrant survivors—all this while migrant women survivors already face additional obstacles to accessing support and justice.
I understand that the Government’s position on Article 59 is under review, pending the results of the pilot. I would welcome an update from my noble friend the Minister on this review, as well as a response to the argument that the pilot has no clear link with the article in question.
The reservation on Article 44 would appear to mean that women who are subjected to some offences abroad by a UK resident who is not a UK national will not be able to seek prosecution in the UK unless those offences are also crimes in the country where they happened. This appears to leave open a loophole that will prevent women securing justice. I would be interested in my noble friend the Minister’s explanation as to why this reservation should remain.
My second area of questions relates to the purpose of the convention to promote international co-operation with a view to eliminating violence against women and domestic violence. The UK has a proud history of working with international partners on ending violence against women and girls, including the then Department for International Development’s ground-breaking What Works to Prevent Violence programme, which I am pleased to hear will continue in some form.
Many of us are looking forward to the FCDO’s women and girls strategy. Can my noble friend the Minister tell us when this will be published? Given the role that the UK has played previously to end violence against women and girls around the world, I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to restore funding to women and girls to pre-cuts levels. We have been given a figure of £745 million for this, which is significantly less than the total amount spent on principal and significant investment in gender equality that was cut. Can my noble friend the Minister explain how this figure was reached? I appreciate that these issues are outside his department, so I would be happy for him to follow up in writing.
The Istanbul convention is the first instrument in Europe to set legally binding standards specifically to prevent gender-based violence, protect victims of violence and punish perpetrators. In these troubling times, when we are seeing the frightening rollback of the rights of women and girls in the United States, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the prevention, protection and punishment that the convention provides are more important than ever.
My noble friend will be well aware of the scale of violence against women in this country, and that those rates greatly increased during the pandemic. The UK needs a long-term, practical and targeted approach to ending violence against women in all its forms, and the Istanbul convention offers such an approach. I very much welcome the Government’s move to ratify the convention, and I look forward to my noble friend the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for securing this Motion for debate and for the work of her committee. I also welcome and strongly support her personal statement in relation to Europe and the rule of law. It is of course deeply shocking that we face such appalling conflict in Europe once again. We are already discovering how especially vulnerable women and girls are in conflict. Rape is, yet again, being used as a weapon of war.
We signed up to the Istanbul convention in 2012, yet it has taken a decade for the UK to ratify it. It is astonishing how long that has taken. Why did it take so long? The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, was very gentle here, maybe as the chair of her committee. After all, in 2012 we had a very successful conference on preventing violence against women in conflict led by the then Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Hague. In our development programmes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, indicated, we have fought long and hard to protect women against violence. The Home Secretary says that we have most of what the convention says in UK law anyway. So why the delay?
How can anyone doubt the importance of this issue? We know that economically in most of the world, if not all, women are and long have been second-class citizens, which has contributed to a sense that violence against women is acceptable. I recall that, when I was in DfID, we supported research carried out by the South African Medical Research Council into how to counter violence against women. The Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom might not have seen this as within its own scope, but the South African equivalent rightly identified that it could not combat HIV/AIDs effectively when, for example, simply getting married was a risk factor for women, if it did not counter entrenched views of the inferiority of women, and acceptance and even condoning of violence against them.
It has long been held that maybe one-third of women globally have been or are subject to violence. Given the difficulty of eliciting accurate information, it is likely that that figure is higher. The research funded with the South African Medical Research Council in a neighbouring state reported that around 80% of women reported that they had suffered violence. That is striking. But what I found even more striking was that over 60% of men surveyed agreed that they had meted out such violence against their female partners. That means that they and their society saw this as acceptable. If you were to undertake such a survey in the United Kingdom, I am sure the numbers would be lower because of shame on both sides.
Making clear that violence against women and girls is seen as absolutely unacceptable has to be the first step in protection. As we have heard, the Istanbul convention was created to help to prevent and combat such violence. Amnesty International calls it “the gold standard” and states that it
“can save the lives of millions of women and girls.”
That we are not ratifying it in its entirety implies that we do not think the UK can or should reach that gold standard.
The convention sets out minimum standards for Governments in Europe on prevention, protection and prosecution of violence against women and domestic violence. It includes obligations for states to set up protection and support services to respond to violence against women, such as an adequate number of shelters, rape crisis centres, free 24/7 helplines, and psychological counselling and medical care for survivors of violence. It also calls on the authorities to ensure education on gender equality, sexuality and healthy relationships. Michael Gove’s misplaced acceptance of the arguments of those who resisted sex education in schools as promoting sex among underage children—a policy that was finally reversed much later, and which might have helped protect some girls who are now protesting about #MeToo—stood in the way of ratifying this treaty earlier. Yet Ireland felt able to ratify it in 2019.
The treaty offers protection to all women and girls without discrimination, to ensure no one is left behind. That is in line with our also signing up to the sustainable development goals, which apply in the United Kingdom as much as they do in the poorest countries globally.
The convention has specific provisions for refugee and migrant women and girls, as we have heard, introducing the possibility of granting migrant women who are survivors of domestic violence an autonomous residence permit when their residence status depends on that of their abusive partner. It also requests Governments to recognise gender-based violence against women as a form of persecution within the meaning of the 1951 refugee convention. One can see why this particular Home Secretary might have been wary. What is more, the convention recognises that at the heart of things there is inequality, and that Governments should therefore put in place measures to change attitudes that result in individuals and societies condoning or accepting violence against women.
There have been allegations that the convention undermines the notion of the “traditional family”. Parliaments in Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria have argued that they should not need to ratify the convention. As many will know, Turkey has actually pulled out of it, saying that it is
“incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.”
Were we really wanting to align ourselves with such positions? Yet we have made two reservations to our ratification of the treaty, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has explained. She has outlined very clearly the view of the Select Committee. I am very glad that the committee has examined what is happening here.
On dual criminality, the Government accept that crimes such as FGM or forced marriage can be subject to UK law, even if they are not illegal in the country where these are carried out. How can the Home Secretary seem to conclude, for example, that rape should not be included here? Precisely which forms of violence against women and girls do we approve of? In relation to the migrant victims’ scheme, she says that it is under review. They have had long enough to consider this, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, made clear. Again, are we designating certain women as second-class and saying that what happens to migrant women does not matter? The Select Committee concludes that it does not see a justification for the reservation in relation to women migrants. The noble Baroness explained very clearly why it concluded this. Is the Home Secretary really saying that she has no concern for migrants who have been or are subject to domestic violence?
At the request particularly of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who would have liked to have contributed today but was unable to do so, can the Minister tell me, possibly afterwards, what representations the office of Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, has made on the UK’s ratification of the Istanbul convention, including on any exclusions?
There was never a justification for the delay in ratifying the convention, and it is astonishing that after a decade of foot-dragging, the Government now wish to have these exclusions. They are totally incompatible with our signature to the SDGs, and the position we have taken in our overseas programmes, if nothing else. I am glad that we are finally ratifying the convention, and pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and all the others who fought for this for so long. I look forward to the Minister’s full response, in a letter if necessary.
My Lords, I welcome this important debate, as protecting women and girls from violence and abuse should and must be a key priority for government. We know that the impact of violence against women and girls not only causes unimaginable suffering to victims subjected to the crimes, but the existence of any violence against women and girls further causes deep social issues for our economy, health service and criminal justice system. Therefore, doing what we can to eradicate these heinous crimes remains everyone’s business. I thank my colleagues on the Select Committee and particularly our chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for the work that they have done in preparing the report—and, indeed, the Government for getting us to the point of ratification of the Istanbul convention, even if, as the noble Baroness said, it has taken some time.
The work in this area of the Secretary of State for the Home Office and her team has been admirable, but there is still a lot more that can and must be done. I particularly welcome the Government’s decision to make tackling violence against women and girls a strategic policing requirement, and the subsequent way in which police forces across the UK have risen to the challenges and now proactively engage with their communities on this vital subject. I have seen a plethora of good examples locally, by which chief constables have undertaken major operational changes in how they now prioritise the eradication of violence against women and girls. While it is entirely reprehensible and will remain a stain on the conscience of the UK that it has taken so long, with a number of high-profile cases to get us to this point, we are now at least moving in the right direction.
The latest actions by government, including the Home Secretary’s recent launch of the Enough campaign and how we are putting victims first, demonstrate that this Government are rightly moving further than the convention requires and undertaking encouraging work to prioritise making women and girls safer, not only across our country but overseas through the work of the FCDO on the ground and the NGOs and aid programmes we sponsor.
Other noble Lords have discussed—and I am sure others will follow—the reservations to be made by the Government in the ratification of the treaty. Instead of providing replication on the topic of the reservations, I want to use this opportunity to seek clarity from my noble friend the Minister on the process of extending the ratification of the treaty to the Crown dependencies and British Overseas Territories. If my understanding is correct, the provisions of the treaty will not extend to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories at this time.
I understand that Her Majesty’s Government have informed all Crown dependencies and overseas territories that it is the UK Government’s intention to ratify the Istanbul convention by the end of July. Of course, I respect the self-governing status of the overseas territories, but can my noble friend the Minister please update the Grand Committee on, first, what action the Government have taken or will take to promote the convention to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories; secondly, whether the Government have undertaken any analysis of whether the internal laws of the Crown dependencies and British Overseas Territories are currently compliant with the treaty; and, thirdly, what work the Government are undertaking to encourage our friends to begin the consultation processes so that, if desired, they can have the treaty extended to them?
I welcome the Government’s intention to ratify this treaty and commend Her Majesty’s Government for the work that has been and will continue to be done as we unite to prevent, combat and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls.
My Lords, I welcome the report from the International Agreements Committee on the Istanbul convention. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter on her chairing of the committee, and the committee members on producing such an excellent report. The report highlights the main points and the reservations the Government wish to use to enable the ratification of the Istanbul convention. I will concentrate on Article 59.
The Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017, which my noble friend Lady Hayter mentioned, was a Private Member’s Bill that started in the House of Commons and which I took through the House of Lords. It required the Government to publish an annual report to Parliament on progress made towards ratification. The first report was published in April 2017, and there have since been five annual reports. Does the Minister expect the 2021 report to be the last annual report and, if so, will there be a report on the progress made on the reservations? When will those reservations be removed?
In paragraph 12, the committee makes it clear that it does not see
“any justification for the reservation”
relating to Article 59. In paragraph 13 it makes several points, calling on the Government
“to justify the exclusion and set out … the criteria that will be used for … measuring the success of the Support for Migrant Victims Scheme pilot”.
It also asks what timetable will be used to withdraw the reservations.
The Minister will no doubt be aware of the letter from more than 80 organisations calling for the convention to be ratified, including Article 59, as those organisations feel so strongly about this matter. What can the Minister say about how progress will be made? It has already taken the Government 10 long years since signing the convention in 2012.
While the ratification is a huge step forward, it is a shame that the Government’s approach to it includes opting out of life-saving support and protection for migrant women. Article 59 provides a lifeline for migrant women survivors, as it requires member states to grant residence to victims whose immigration status depends on an abusive partner. The decision to make a reservation is extremely concerning, as it denies migrant women survivors life-saving support. It means that migrant women who need the protection of the convention will be excluded from it. This goes against the spirit of the convention, which is firmly based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination.
There is much evidence about the need for Article 59 to provide vital support for migrant women experiencing violence. This evidence, provided by numerous specialist women’s organisations during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act, clearly established the gap in support for migrant victims of domestic abuse whose residency relates to their abuser and who have no recourse to public funds.
Despite the 10 years the Government have taken for ratification, they have stated that they do not want to delay based on the pilot scheme and the evidence it will produce, and have decided to ratify by applying a reservation to the whole of Article 59. It is interesting to note that the advice and expertise of the specialist women’s organisations make it clear that ratification without reservations does not need to be dependent on the findings of the pilot scheme evaluation.
Over the years, I have asked numerous Oral and Written Questions, taken part in debates asking the Government when the Istanbul convention would be ratified and taken a Private Member’s Bill, which I referred to earlier, though your Lordships’ House. At long last we have an answer, and the Government have said that by 31 July they will ratify the convention with certain reservations. But this might not be the end of me asking questions, as I am sure noble Peers will want to know when these reservations will be withdrawn.
Once again, I give my thanks to the committee and our excellent chair, my noble friend Lady Hayter, for producing the report highlighting many points of concern. I am grateful to the IC Change campaigning organisation and the Southall Black Sisters for their advice, support and briefings over many years, as they campaigned to ensure that the Government ratify the Istanbul convention. Let us hope we have as little delay as possible to enable full ratification. I, like many others, look forward to that day.
My Lords, as a member of the IAC I too support the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. The nub of this important issue, as has been said, is the delay in ratification because of the unwillingness of the Government to explain these reservations, especially that relating to Article 59 on migrant workers. The case has been very well made just now. However, I am confident that the Minister will have an interim explanation today and I expect it to be about Immigration Rules and Home Office funding, because we have heard that before. Despite this, I doubt that the reservation on the whole of Article 59 will be lifted soon or even at all. HMG seem to have no difficulty in ratifying it straightaway, I think implying that the reservations, which will be valid for five years, will be there for some time.
The name Istanbul conjures up happy memories for me, especially the opening of the first Bosphorus bridge, symbolising Turkey’s connection with Europe, nearly 50 years ago in October 1973. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, who is also a member of our committee, was present as a delegate to the North Atlantic Assembly and I was a very junior press officer. We were in no hurry then to bring Turkey, including the whole of Anatolia, into Europe, and the EU is still resisting Turkey’s application today.
None the less, engagement with the EU led to a number of policies that might have pleased Atatürk, one being the Council of Europe’s Istanbul convention, which Turkey was the first to sign and ratify. It has since withdrawn from it on spurious grounds. Family values were cited, connected to fears of gay rights. Poland has followed and others may. But, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, only a few days ago Ukraine became the 36th nation to ratify the convention—lighting a beacon of hope in a so-called democratic world that seems to be back-tracking on the rights of women. Unfortunately, President Erdoğan is not Atatürk and, while he has co-operated with Europe on defence and refugees, the last few years have witnessed the brutal suppression of opposition and other domestic policies unlikely to bring Turkey closer to European membership. Istanbul is no longer the model of this convention that we would like it to be.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, who is unable to be here today, would remember from many previous debates on Bills that some of us were concerned about the status of migrant workers. We had all heard horror stories from Kalayaan, the non-governmental organisation concerned with migrant workers, and other reputable NGOs of women trapped in slavery by their employers without any means of escape. As the Home Office knows well, Kalayaan is a highly respected charity that has long campaigned against the tied visa, which binds migrant workers to their employer and in many cases forces them into an abusive relationship—precisely what this convention is designed to avoid.
Recognising all this has been the Conservative Party—we must not sound surprised—under the noble Lord, Lord Hague, and other Foreign Office Ministers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, who all developed a strong policy of contesting violence against women and girls in foreign and domestic affairs. Other Peers, such as the noble Baronesses, Lady Sugg, Lady Helic and Lady Hodgson, have been involved more recently.
The present Conservative Government have campaigned to eliminate violence against women and girls of any kind, whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere, yet the convention is 10 years old and is still unratified by us. So, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, this short debate is primarily to probe the Home Office’s real intentions towards the dependence of migrant workers should they face domestic violence. It seems that instead of crossing the road to help them, we will be passing by on the other side. I fear that instead of correcting this apparent injustice, the Government will find it more convenient to leave it exactly as it is. As our report says, we cannot understand why the Government hesitate to allow councils to offer the protection of the convention to migrant workers who are unavoidably dependent on the residency of their spouse or partner.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, for this debate, and her committee for its report. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for her tireless work to ensure that this convention was ratified.
This has been a thorough and important debate. I cannot remember how many times, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, we asked the Government: “When are you going to ratify the Istanbul convention?”, and now, as we have heard, they are going to ratify it only partly.
As other noble Lords have said, the UK signed the convention—a legally binding instrument providing a comprehensive framework to counter violence against women and girls—in 2012, and it has taken almost a decade to ratify it. The provisions contained in the convention are there for a reason. The reservation affecting migrant women effectively excludes domestically abused migrant women dependent on their abuser for UK residence—who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, are particularly vulnerable—from the full protection that the convention provides for other victims of domestic abuse. “If I leave my abuser I may be deported” is a dilemma that no woman should have to face.
The question the Government need to answer is: why? The Government may be concerned about claims for leave to remain based on false claims of domestic abuse, but the answer is to have mechanisms in place to ensure that claims are investigated and verified, not to exclude genuine victims from protection. In any case, the convention requires the granting of an autonomous residence permit for such victims only in the event of particularly difficult circumstances. As we have heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter, Lady Sugg and Lady Gale, more than 80 organisations have signed a letter to the Home Secretary objecting to this reservation, which comes on top of migrant victims of domestic abuse being excluded from the protections in the Domestic Abuse Act. The Istanbul convention is all about equality and non-discrimination. I thank the End Violence Against Women Coalition for its briefing on this.
The Government will say that they are awaiting the outcome of a pilot scheme to provide for migrant victims of domestic abuse, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said, it is unclear how this support is dependent on agreeing to provide autonomous residence permits to migrant women in the circumstances set out in the convention. It is a mark of the standing of Southall Black Sisters that the Government chose that organisation for the pilot.
Similarly, under a separate reservation, UK residents who are not UK nationals may not face prosecution in the UK for certain crimes of sexual violence committed abroad, such as marital rape, and any UK resident may not be prosecuted in the UK for forced abortion and sterilisation crimes committed abroad. The convention says a dual criminality requirement for these and other offences may not apply, but the UK Government, through this reservation, are applying the dual criminality requirement that offending behaviour is a criminal offence in the country where it happened and in the UK.
I accept that it is usual practice not to prosecute someone for doing something in another country for which they could not be prosecuted in that country, but the convention sets out where it is necessary to disapply that practice in order to protect women and girls from violence. The Government give an example to justify this reservation of a German national having sex with a 15 year-old partner, since the age of consent in Germany is 14. We have a Crown Prosecution Service—an independent prosecuting authority—that decides on the basis of the likelihood of conviction and whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. Just like the investigation into whether the domestic abuse of a migrant victim is genuine before applying the convention and providing an autonomous residence permit, the CPS would fully consider all the facts before deciding whether a prosecution is in the public interest.
Those resident in the UK are under an obligation to know what the UK accepts as legally permissible, and the UK is entitled to require those who want to live in the UK to abide by our laws if they wish to remain resident. Again, this part of the convention is there for a very good reason; there are safeguards, and therefore there is no good reason for the Government’s reservation. If the Government do not think that these provisions should be part of the convention, why do they not propose amendments to the convention, rather than saying that the UK is a special case where parts of the convention will not apply?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, said, part of the purpose of the convention is to promote and encourage international co-operation. How will the Government’s reservations affect the UK’s ability to encourage other countries to tackle violence against women and girls? The statistics so powerfully quoted by my noble friend Lady Northover show how much work still needs to be done to change attitudes and cultures towards women and girls internationally, as well as at home.
We strongly support the ratification of the convention in full.
My Lords, it is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. I agree with all his remarks, which he made with his usual competence. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter on bringing this Motion before us today and on her chairing of the International Agreements Committee, and I thank all the Members who have spoken. My noble friend does this Room and indeed our country a great service by ensuring that this is debated, because this is a hugely important document. I want to say something more about some of the broader points made within the document as well as the reservations that her committee have pointed to. I congratulate her on that and agree absolutely with all that she said. She pointed to the work of my noble friend Lady Gale who has continually demanded that this is ratified. Although it has taken 10 years, one wonders what the timescale would have been had she not shown such tenacity.
Of course, that is true of many other members of this Committee. I was struck by many of the comments that were made. The noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, talked about the current situation, and I will come back to that, because we should look at the context within which we are discussing this.
I must say as a man that it was important that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, referred in particular to statistics about men in South Africa. She said that the figures would obviously be much higher than those on the attitudes of men in this country, but there is a challenge to men in our country in respect to all this, and she was right to point that out.
The noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, was right on the overseas territories and dependencies. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister why they are excluded and whether that is an exclusion for ever or for a period of time, whatever that might be.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, reminded us of the irony of the fact that Turkey recently withdrew from the Istanbul convention. The irony is not lost on us at all. I also appreciate the other remarks that he made.
I was a member of the Council of Europe for two and a half years, and I agree very much with my noble friend Lady Hayter’s remarks on the importance of the work that it does and on the continuing confusion that it is somehow the EU and we have left all that. It is important to note the way the Council of Europe was set up and how it was set up to establish human rights, not as a politically expedient measure that you decide at a particular moment in time whether you agree or not, but as a universal standard that applies throughout time. That is the standard that we should remember—that a human right is a human right. It is not a politically expedient thing to adhere to when it suits; it should absolutely be at the core of everything that we do. The Council of Europe has done a tremendous job over a huge period of time.
We are pleased that the Government have decided to ratify this. The Motion before us asks us to take note of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. Quite rightly, the Committee has focused on some of the reservations that the Government have expressed and their criticisms of it. I join my noble friend Lady Hayter and the Committee in the criticisms that have been made of the Government in asking them to justify why there are these two particular reservations, with respect in particular to Article 59, on migrant workers, and Article 44.
This is a massive document. Let us remember, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, pointed out to us, that as we debate and discuss this take-note Motion, we still have a situation in which rape prosecutions are at the lowest level ever, as far as I am aware, and up to two women victims of domestic violence are killed every week. I could quote huge numbers of other statistics, which we would all abhor. As much as it is about the reservations, my question is: how will the Government, in taking note of this convention, use it as a springboard for further action?
There is law after law. I am sure that some of the noble Lords here are more diligent than I am. I did not read every relevant law on every single page, but there are certainly a huge number of laws relevant to protecting women and ending domestic abuse and sexual violence—yet in our society they are still real problems. How will the passing and taking note of this, with or without those reservations, improve the situation? The Government need to set out and explain, not only through plans, new strategies and taking note of documents, how this will make a difference. Why will this be the document that, in 10 years, we will say was the watershed moment when this was implemented in a way that meant that some of the disgraceful things we see, debate and discuss in our Parliament are coming to an end?
I use one example: Chapter III of the convention, on prevention. The online Bill is a massive opportunity for the Government that cannot be missed. My noble friend Lady Hayter and others will be familiar with this, with either their children or their grandchildren: the wild west that operates online, in particular for girls at school, is an outrage. It cannot be legal or right. This document says we have to prevent it. It says all the right things. The Minister will agree that we have to do something. It is not a party-political point or a smart point to make in a debate. It is a disgrace and a scandal that as a society, a state and a Parliament we cannot get hold of what girls at school in particular—not exclusively; it affects some boys—have to deal with. I use this as one example; there are many other examples in our society. I will not be explicit about it, because noble Lords know the sorts of photographs and images they are routinely sent and the sorts of victimisation and bullying they experience as a result of that.
Why will taking note of this convention make a difference? When I listen to debates on online safety, everybody agrees but nobody is sure whether it will work. The starting point is to be honest about how bad it is. Amanda Spielman’s report on this was absolutely damning. I do not want it for my children, my grandchildren or anybody else’s. This debate is an opportunity not to say to the Government, “You wicked Government; you’re not doing anything”, but to ask what as a Parliament and as a country we are going to do about the fact that our young girls at school are exposed to things they should not be exposed to. It has to stop. How are we going to do that? Debating this convention gives us another opportunity to act as a springboard to do something about that.
The Government want to enact the prevention chapter to which I have referred and many of the others in the convention, but I ask the Minister how they are going to move them from paper to policy to practice. How will we know, in five, 10 or 15 years, whether this has worked? How will the Government measure, understand and know that?
My noble friend Lady Hayter and the committee, with their knowledge and experience, have pointed out these reservations. I will make one or two more points on them before concluding. Paragraph 12 of the International Agreements Committee report say that there will be a reservation on
“the obligation to provide autonomous residence permits to migrant women whose residency depends on that of their spouse or partner and who have been victims of domestic abuse”.
I cannot imagine what the consequences of that will be. Somebody who is a victim of domestic abuse whose residency depends on the status of the abuser will be denied legal residence because we have a reservation on this Council of Europe protocol. As my noble friend Lady Hayter said, how on earth can that be right? It flies in the face of common decency.
I do not know what the legal position is but, if somebody had come to me when I was a Member of Parliament and said, “I have been abused by so-and-so. He has a criminal record for it and I have nowhere to go. The Home Office is now pursuing me because I have no residency. The law says I should go back to them”, what should I have done? Was I supposed to have said, “Go back to your abuser. Go and live in their house”? I ask the Minister what on earth the abused victim is supposed to do. The legal position is brilliantly phrased in the document, but I would not tell a human being walking around to go back to their abuser. Would the Minister? Would anybody? I would not, so what are they supposed to do? Yet we have a reservation against granting them any sort of residency status. I do not understand it.
The committee asked for a more detailed explanation on the Government’s second reservation on dual criminality and Article 44. No doubt the Minister will come forward with that.
To conclude, I say to my noble friend Lady Hayter, to her committee and to all who contributed that this should have an audience of millions of people in this country, who would see the universal standards being asked of us and the attempts that the Government and all Governments have made to try to improve the situation. The frank reality is that we have made progress, but progress has been slow and is, in many cases, still shocking. How will this make a difference?
I am not a cynic and am always positive, so my hope, expectation and belief is that this will help us to move forward. The Government need to be a bit clearer about their implementation plan, how they are going to answer some of the real questions that people have raised and why this will make a difference to the real problems that all of us see in our society. They simply cannot be acceptable now, let alone in the future.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for making some powerful contributions to this debate. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and her colleagues on the International Agreements Committee for their report on the Istanbul convention, which was the genesis of today’s debate, and I thank the noble Baroness for her warm words about where we are now. I know that her committee has maintained a close interest in this treaty for a considerable time.
In a moment, I will come on to the reservations that have been at the heart of the debate, but it is important first to stand back, acknowledge and indeed celebrate where we are now. We are at the point of fully ratifying the Istanbul convention—a vital instrument and a real touchstone of a country’s commitment to tackling violence against women and girls. Like my noble friend Lady Sugg and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I was delighted to see the Ukrainian Parliament last week give its approval to ratifying the convention.
With our ratification, we send a clear message to women in the United Kingdom—in answer to some of the powerfully made points of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker—and to our partners overseas that we are in the vanguard of seeking to drive these crimes out of our society. I know that there has been real excitement at the Council of Europe about our proximity to ratification. There is a genuine belief overseas, which has been made clear to us in many different interactions, in the vital importance of the United Kingdom in particular ratifying the convention.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Northover, and, indeed, everybody else, asked why it took so long—10 years—to ratify this convention. There is a powerful or compelling answer to that, which is that first we had to be compliant with all its many provisions. If we were to ratify a treaty before we were compliant with all its provisions, we would go against clear, long-standing government policy and risk being in breach of our legal obligations. That reflects the UK’s dualist legal system, whereby no treaty can have effect in domestic law without specific legislation. Several other countries—my pronunciation may be a bit off here—have “monist” legal systems, meaning that the treaty forms part of domestic law. That can make ratification swifter, which is part of the reason why it took us longer than many other countries.
The main reason why we could not ratify in recent years was the need to pass legislation to make us compliant with Article 44, on extraterritorial jurisdiction. A legislative vehicle for that was identified in 2017 with the planned Domestic Abuse Bill. That was subject to consultation then pre-legislative scrutiny, then it was introduced in three different parliamentary Sessions before achieving Royal Assent in April 2021. When Northern Ireland implemented its relevant measures from the Act in February 2022, the way was clear to ratify. I appreciate that it a long time, but I think that there is a good reason there. Perhaps we could have moved quicker, but that explains why we are where we are.
We should not see ratification in isolation: it forms part of the huge range of work that we are taking forward to tackle violence against women and girls. These crimes are utterly appalling; they cause enormous suffering. Our message is clear: enough is enough. The Government’s landmark tackling violence against women and girls strategy, combined with the complementary Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan, embodies our commitment to this effort. From the appointment of DCC Maggie Blyth as the first national police lead on violence against women and girls, to the launch of our hard-hitting communications campaign under the banner “Enough”, referred to by my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister, to the ban on the terrible practices of virginity testing and hymenoplasty, which will come into effect on Friday, we are leaving no stone unturned in our mission to ensure that women and girls both are, and feel, safe.
I shall come on to addressing the reservations in a moment, but in specific answer to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, the UK is not a special case. The ability to make reservations is in the treaty on which the UK negotiated, so that removes the need to propose amendments. Twenty-four other countries have also made reservations of various sorts.
To come on to the migrant victims reservation, to which everybody referred, it is the one on Article 59 of the convention. Passionately held beliefs have been expressed in today’s debate, and I respect them enormously. It is fair to say that the opposition to this reservation is not a surprise to the Government, but we still think that it is the right way to proceed. In specific answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has not written to either the Home Office or the MoJ on this subject.
As a first reflection, I stress that we are far from alone in making a reservation on the convention, as I have just said; 24 countries applied a reservation when they ratified it, or confirmed their intention to do so when they signed it. This represents a majority of those countries that have signed the convention. Nine countries ratified or signed the convention with a reservation on Article 59. We need to see the convention as a whole, including the provision within it that enables states to make reservations on some articles, a provision which the drafters included in the knowledge that some countries would consider it important to be able to take such measures.
The question has been asked about the link between the support for the migrant victims scheme pilot and Article 59, notably by my noble friend Lady Sugg. While the former concerns financial support, the latter relates to residence status. In fact, this link is far from a new one: we made it clear in the two most recent annual reports on our progress towards ratification, which were laid before Parliament, that our compliance position on Article 59 was under review pending the findings of the pilot. The then Safeguarding Minister, Victoria Atkins, made the same connection when giving evidence to the noble Baroness’s committee last year. We have made the link in many other contexts, both inside and outside Parliament, so this has not come out of the blue.
We also accept that the specific subjects of the pilot and of Article 59 are different, but they are linked. It is our intention to consider both subjects together in the light of the pilot scheme, alongside wider policy considerations, rather than to determine policy surrounding migrant victims in a piecemeal fashion. It is right that we consider all these matters in the round to ensure that the support and policies that emerge from the pilot have the most beneficial impact for the migrant victims and survivors.
Given the commitment that we had made, and the fact that we cannot confirm our compliance position with Article 59 at this juncture, we had a choice: either to wait until the pilot’s evaluation had been produced and we had fully considered its findings before ratifying, or to ratify now with the reservation on Article 59, which we will consider again later. Taking the former course would have meant a delay of many more months before ratifying. As we have just discussed, the noble Baroness’s committee queried the reference we had made to speed, given that a decade had passed, but these months matter. It was the passage and implementation of legislation that stopped us from ratifying, and now that the last legislative obstacle has been removed, we did not think that it would be right to delay any further.
Every speaker, I believe, asked when the evaluation of the support for migrant victims scheme pilot will conclude. It ran for 12 months from April 2021 until March 2022. The independent evaluation by the Behavioural Insights Team aims to ensure that we have a robust evidence base to inform any future policy decisions. We will receive the final report in the summer of 2022, and we will share the findings as soon as is practicable. I am afraid that I cannot give any more details on that because I simply do not have, or know, them.
More specifically, the eighth of this month was the 10-year anniversary of our signing the convention. We considered it important to declare our readiness to ratify, and to start the process for doing so, before then. Had we not done so, 8 June would have brought significant criticism not only at home but, just as importantly, abroad, for our still not having been able to give firm information on a ratification timetable 10 years on. When Victoria Atkins appeared before the noble Baroness’s committee last year, the thrust of the questioning in relation to Article 59 was not about the validity of the link between that article and the pilot but rather how that link would surely result in our ratifying either late in 2022 or in 2023. It has not, and we are very pleased that we are now ratifying.
The pilot’s evaluators will produce their findings later this summer. We will then review the position on Article 59 in the light of those findings, alongside wider policy considerations on migrant victims. It is not meaningful to give a precise methodology for how that will happen, but I can confirm that we will pay attention to all relevant factors. We will then take any decisions as soon as is practicable. I stress that we are fully committed to ensuring that migrant victims are supported effectively. Again, it is worth digressing briefly into the existing support for migrant victims of domestic abuse, which is considerable.
The destitute domestic violence concession was introduced specifically to support migrant victims of domestic abuse who had entered the UK on certain spousal or partner visas. Migrant victims of domestic abuse on spousal partner visas can apply for leave to remain without the “no recourse to public funds restriction” when their relationship has broken down because of domestic violence, they are destitute, and they intend to subsequently make an application for indefinite leave to remain as a victim of domestic abuse. These victims can then apply to claim public funds for up to three months while their application to settle in the UK is considered.
We grant the indefinite leave to remain in cases where we accept that a relationship has broken down as a result of domestic abuse, and the intention is to safeguard eligible victims by offering them an immigration status independent of the abusive partner so that they do not remain in an abusive relationship out of fear for their immigration status. I could continue on that, but that gives a flavour of what the Government already have in place. To answer the very specific point, there is certainly no intention on the Government’s part that anyone should need to sleep with the enemy, as it was put earlier.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked whether we would continue to produce reports on what we do on the reservation. The answer is no; the annual progress reports are required by the 2017 Act, but it does not require post-ratification reports. However, obviously, we will ensure that we inform the House about our forthcoming endeavours on Article 59. I imagine that answer will not satisfy all noble Lords, but that is the best that I can do at the moment. I will now come on to the next reservation: the dual criminality reservation.
As noble Lords have rightly said, the effect of this reservation is essentially that a UK resident—whether or not they are a UK national—can be prosecuted for carrying out forced abortion or forced sterilisation overseas only if what they did was a crime in the country where they did it, and that a UK resident who is not a UK national can be prosecuted for carrying out sexual violence overseas; again, only if what they did was illegal in the country where it was done. This is already the position in legislation. The reservation itself does not change anything; rather, it is a necessary consequence of existing laws, some of which have been in place for several years. If we were not to make this reservation, we simply could not ratify the convention now. Instead, we would have to change primary legislation across the UK, leading to a delay in ratification of around two years, which I am sure nobody would wish to see.
I am not sure, though, why we would wish to change course even if we could. Most of the relevant legislation sits within the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and attracted cross-party support when the Bill was being debated; indeed, when my noble friend Lord Wolfson had cause during those debates to explain the dual criminality policy, it was warmly welcomed by both the Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches. I can quote my noble friend Lord Wolfson here because I think it would be helpful. He said in regard to an amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, that
“a dual criminality requirement will continue to apply for UK residents. This means that we could prosecute UK residents who commit marital rape abroad only if the behaviour is also criminal in the country where it is committed. We should not prosecute, for example, a Ruritanian national who is habitually resident in England for doing something in Ruritania that is not criminal under Ruritanian law. I remind the House that existing law already makes the same distinction between UK nationals and UK residents in relation to extraterritorial sexual offences where the victim is aged under 18.”—[Official Report, 10/3/21; col. 1781.]
That broadly explains the principle of dual criminality, but of course we are talking about very specific provisions, which I will come on to in a second. The Act contains equivalent provisions for Scotland and Northern Ireland, which we enacted with the approval of those Administrations.
Essentially, the policy revolves around the principle that it is not generally right to prosecute someone for doing something in a country which does not contravene that country’s laws. Sometimes we can make an exception when there is a strong case to do so; for example, with forced marriage and female genital mutilation, because there are a number of countries where a British child could be taken to undergo the practice, with no protection from local law enforcement. However, the point is that those are the exceptions. We say this not because we do not think it matters if someone commits crimes not covered by those exceptions; on the contrary, it matters hugely. Rather, this is about practicality. If the acts will in practice always be illegal overseas, the overseas countries are the best placed to prosecute them. Since we rely on general offences of physical violence to ensure our compliance with the requirement to criminalise forced abortion and forced sterilisation, that is why we are making the reservation in relation to those crimes, as Ireland and others have done. Therefore, it is not about approving of crimes, as perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, implied.
The other point is about the appropriate reach of the UK’s criminal law. If somebody who lives in the UK but is not one of our nationals returns temporarily to their country of origin and does something which is legal there, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, referred to, is it really proportionate for the UK to prosecute them on their return? As the noble Lord suggested, an example might be someone who, on return to their country of origin, has sex with a partner who is not below the age of consent in that country of origin but who is under 16. It is that sort of scenario that we had in mind above all when making the reservation in relation to sexual violence.
On a couple of specific points, my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister asked about overseas territories and Crown dependencies. We have contacted all the Crown dependencies and overseas territories to discuss this. If they so wish, we can extend ratification to them in the future, but it is for the Crown dependencies and overseas territories to assess whether they are compliant with all the measures and to become so if they are not. We have shared with some of them, on request, our analysis of what makes us compliant, to help them, and officials will be happy to continue to offer such help as they need.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, strayed into online safety and a wider-ranging debate. Speaking personally and as the father of a daughter, I completely agree with him and think we will have plenty of opportunities for that debate. He specifically referred to the subject of rape. The rape review published in June 2021 took a hard and honest look at how the entire criminal justice system deals with rape and, in too many instances, it simply was not good enough. We agree.
To help drive change within policing, the Home Office is funding Operation Soteria, which is driving changes in the police and Crown Prosecution Service’s approach to rape in five police force areas. In December, we announced a programme of expansion to a further 14 police force areas and their corresponding CPS areas. We are investing £5 million in the Transforming Forensics programme to increase the police’s capacity to process evidence from digital devices so that victims get their phones back faster, and we are working with industry to explore how technology can be leveraged to drive efficiencies in these sorts of investigations. We are ensuring transparency and accountability for the delivery of these actions through six-monthly progress reports and quarterly criminal justice system performance scorecards. I do not know whether we will look back in 10 years and decide this was a watermark. I hope we will, but we are doing the right things, certainly as a start.
My noble friend Lady Sugg asked about the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s strategy on violence against women and girls. I do not know when that is going to be published or how the specific figure of £745 million was arrived at, so I commit to writing on that. Finally, I hope noble Lords understand if I do not comment on the actions of certain other countries. I think that would be a mistake.
I conclude by once again thanking all noble Lords for their contributions today. We understand the vital importance of the issues at stake and look forward to the clear message that our ratification of this convention will send.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and the other speakers for what has been an invaluable debate. I started by looking at the formation of the Council of Europe in 1949. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, promptly moved us forward to 1973, the influence that Britain was able to have over Turkey at the time and the role that this country has played in standard setting and expectations. This is why the Minister will understand that our feelings about the reservation perhaps go even wider than the specifics of it—to the signal it sends out. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked whether we really want to align ourselves with Turkey. She said that we are not reaching the gold standard, and that is something to which we surely all aspire.
One of the most valuable things said by the noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, is that this is everyone’s business. It is often thought that these issues are women’s business. They are not; they are everyone’s, internationally as well as across the genders. They are internationally important, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, said, at a time when women’s rights are being rolled back in all parts of the world. What we say is particularly important in the message it gives.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, recalls my noble friend Lady Gale always asking, “When are you going to ratify?”. As I think he probably hinted, she will now continue by asking, “When are you going to erase these reservations?”. The Minister said that this is no longer in the Act that my noble friend managed to get through the House, but I promise she will continue.
I was slightly confused by the Minister’s response on the treatment of migrant women leaving the abusing partner on whom they depend for their residence status. I was trying to follow it closely. If it was as he said, I see no reason for the reservation because we seem to be doing it. I will have to look very carefully at that. We may need an exchange of correspondence between his department and our committee. If it was so good, you would not need the reservation, basically, which means it is probably not quite as good as he said. Therefore, we will have to live with the question that my noble friend Lord Coaker raised: what are migrant women going to do? What would we advise them—go back to their abuser and be able to stay here, or leave and risk deportation? The jury is still out; maybe we can exchange correspondence to clarify that point.
For the moment, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken and our committee, again, for the work it has done, as well as our advisers. We are delighted with the ratification. Do not let what we have said about our worries disguise the fact that this is important. For all the reasons that my noble friend Lord Coaker and others gave, this is an important signal. Let us hope that we can trumpet the good bits, albeit still pressing on the others.
Committee adjourned at 5.06 pm.